Is E-Mail Next in Government's Watch List?

Though not in a panic, the list industry is contemplating Direct Marketing Association president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen's warning that the Federal Trade Commission's national do-not-call list could lead to do-not-mail and do-not-e-mail lists.

The DMA responded to the FTC's announcement of a no-call list this week by saying it set a “bad precedent,” noting that the FTC list “could open the door to government-run national opt-out lists for e-mail and mail.”

Though the head of the DMA's List and Database Council said she expects no FTC action in the near future, the council will examine the issue.

“We are concerned about any legislation that gets put into place on a broad, sweeping platform that doesn't have the input of the good guys — the DMA and the companies who do honor it,” said Stefanie Pont, chairwoman of the List and Database Council and corporate media director at Brann Worldwide, Wilton, CT. “There's a difference between looking at the issue rationally and panicking, and I think the issue begs some review and discussion. I think we need to make our case to the FTC.”

Congress is continually looking at legislation that would suppress direct mail and e-mail, but she said responsible marketers don't wish to send communications to someone who doesn't want them.

Another council member noted the disparity between the two channels.

“There's a tremendous difference in the perception of the public between telemarketing calls and getting a piece in the mailbox,” said Linda Huntoon, council co-chair and executive vice president at Direct Media Inc., Greenwich, CT. “I don't know that one set of regulations necessarily will engender a domino effect in this business.”

Pont said she expects the FTC would act on e-mail first. “I think postal mail is probably the least in danger because it's not intrusive.”

At least one list professional agreed with Wientzen's assessment.

“For a self-regulating industry that has done a terrific job of self-regulating, I think Wientzen is right on the money,” said Roy Schwedelson, CEO of Worldata, Boca Raton, FL. “I think that it would be very na•ve to think it can't happen.”

An indication that the FTC might focus on the list industry came in late October when J. Howard Beales, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, spoke at a client briefing held by a Washington law firm.

“We're very interested in pursuing investigations involving lists and list brokers,” Beales said at the seminar. “We are very much learning how the industry works and what the issues really are.”

The list industry has weathered regulation in the past. When the Driver's Privacy Protection Act curtailed the use of data from state motor vehicle departments in 2000, the industry replaced it with data from other sources.

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