Opt-Outs, Spam and the DMA

In 2002, I needed a document from the Direct Marketing Association Web site. The document was available to anyone, but the DMA makes users register. This begins my tale. Everything I describe happened before the new spam law took effect this month.

The DMA uses a common registration methodology. A user registers by providing, among other things, an e-mail address. The Web site immediately sends a password to the e-mail address, and the user retrieves the password and enters the restricted part of the Web site. This method provides some assurance that an e-mail address is legitimate.

Of course, things do not always work as expected. It is easy for anyone to establish a free e-mail account. Hotmail is just one of hundreds of Web sites offering free accounts to all comers, with few, if any, requirements that users provide identifying information. I maintain several free accounts to use when I don’t care to share my real address.

I find Internet registrations to be something of a joke. Unless I am making a credit card purchase, I rarely register at a Web site under my own name and e-mail address. I do not share personal information without a good reason, and Web sites rarely offer any justification for the data they request. If I am forced to respond to questions, I just make up answers. I report that I live in Burkina Faso, have an income under $10,000, am 6 years old, or whatever strikes my fancy.

I tell the truth when a Web site asks for a reasonable amount of non-personal information. For example, The Washington Post’s Web site asks only for year of birth, ZIP code and gender. The request is respectful of users’ privacy, and I provide honest information in exchange.

To get the document I wanted from the DMA, I registered under a fictitious name and address and I used a free e-mail account. Even for a free account, I didn’t want to get any spam, so I diligently looked for and exercised every opt-out possibility that I could find on the DMA registration page and Web site. I can’t be sure that I found them all, but I did my best.

I didn’t pay much attention to the free e-mail account for a while. However, a few months later in October 2002, I discovered a message from the DMA Store. I found this curious, but I opted out of further messages using the facility provided in the message. I received a response acknowledging my request. Opt-out No. 1.

Later that month, I got three messages from the DMA on the same date. The first was from the Supplier Category of the Month. The opt-out on this message promised that by opting out, I no longer would receive e-mails and e-newsletters from the DMA. I opted out. Opt-out No. 2.

The second message came from DMA Conferences. This, too, had an opt-out for e-mail related to conferences, so I used it. The third message was from DMA Updates, and it offered an opt-out from Supplier Category of the Month. Opt-out No. 3.

The next DMA message came in February 2003, this time from customer service asking me to update my information. Of course, my fake information was just as accurate as it was when I entered it, so I didn’t change it.

More DMA e-mails arrived June 11 and July 16. I again followed the opt-out link from the July message and received a response indicating that my request was received. Opt-out No. 4.

The DMA e-mailed again Aug. 1 and Aug. 13. The second of these was from DMA Annual. Because I don’t check this e-mail account regularly, I was unable to send another opt-out for a few weeks.

September brought several more DMA e-mails, including one from DMA Annual and another request to update my contact information. I opted out again and received another confirmation that my request would be honored. Opt-out No. 5.

In October, I got yet another message from DMA Annual and opted out once more. I received yet another confirmation that my address was removed. Opt-out No. 6.

I’ve expressly told the DMA that I didn’t want to receive any e-mail on at least six occasions. My requests clearly were ignored. In some cases, the DMA e-mail arrived from a different source within the DMA, not that it matters which part of the association spammed me. An opt-out is an opt-out.

It is hard to see how I could have been more express in telling the DMA not to send any more e-mail. The DMA told me that it would honor my request, but it repeatedly failed to live up to its word.

I find that most Web sites honor opt-out requests. Occasionally, I get e-mail despite an express request, but a single additional request usually solves the problem. No Web site has bombarded me with unwanted e-mail to the extent as the DMA.

Will the new spam law make the DMA comply with opt-out requests? Not as I read the law. The restrictions fall mainly on commercial e-mail messages, and the DMA as a trade association is probably not covered. The DMA legally can continue to spam its members and Web site users.

What does my experience say about the DMA’s credibility as a supporter for opt-out policies? I leave that question for the reader.

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