In Part I of this series (A Brief History of E-mail), I used Hotmail to illustrate how quickly e-mail use skyrocketed in the mid-nineties. Hotmail gained eight million users in its first year, after which Microsoft quickly purchased them for $400 million. When Yahoo, AOL, Lycos, and many others jumped into the webmail business, the evolution of e-mail hastily advanced.
Despite the progression of webmail, the growth of spam paralleled that of legitimate e-mail. By the late 1990s, local, state and federal law enforcement were receiving regular complaints from recipients about pornography, bogus offers and other scams that were appearing regularly in their inboxes. Law enforcement officials wondered how to throw a rope around this new “e-mail-thing” when they barely understood what it was or how it worked.
Some states proactively moved forward to prohibit the sending and delivery of commercial e-mail to their citizens without prior consent. It wasn’t until 2003 that the US Federal Government passed CAN-SPAM – the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act. It went into effect in 2004 and provided a bare-bones framework mandating how senders needed to legally send commercial e-mail in the U.S.
The main points were:
- Senders cannot forge the technical path that an e-mail takes to its destination. Additionally, all headers must be accurate.
- Subject-lines need to accurately reflect the content of the messages. Most marketers use the Subject-line to identify the messages as commercial in nature.
- There needs to be a working “unsubscribe” mechanism. Marketers have ten days to ensure that no more e-mails are sent to a recipient after an unsubscribed request has been received.
- There needs to be a “real world” contact, allowing the recipient to request list removal by phone, letter, or personal visit.
All of this sounds excellent, right? With the FTC now responsible for enforcement and a new law in place, the spam problem must be fixed, right? Unfortunately this was not the case as there were a few behind-the-curtains points that were even more important to CAN-SPAM’s effectiveness:
- The FTC effectively negated state laws, meaning that the states that once required consent could no longer prosecute as originally intended.
- It was entirely legal to send e-mail without permission as long as the main points of CAN-SPAM were followed.
- Recipients could not directly sue spammers, even ones that violated the federal law. Instead, they could only report the infraction to the FTC, which was quickly overwhelmed with complaints.
Unfortunately for consumers, the FTC set the bar pretty low to legally send e-mail, and then removed nearly all tactics used to pursue spammers. The result? The percentage of unwanted spam is over 90% of all e-mails sent on any given day, a 10% increase over the last ten years.
Consumers may wonder, “What happened?” But as marketers, it’s easy to see that sending e-mail without consent has allowed for the deployment of e-mail as a more successful marketing tool. Had the US required consent, as many European countries (and soon Canada) do, e-mail would have suffered the same fate as pre-recorded telephone calls did a few years ago.
Considering the narrow window of legitimate e-mail to work with, our job as marketers is to do everything we can to disassociate ourselves with spammers, whether through messaging content, e-mail design, send count, or opt-in. In Part III, I will be explaining further what this entails, and what the big ‘Inbox Providers’ require to deliver e-mails to their recipients.
Click below to read the other articles in this series by Neil Bibbins:
A Brief History of E-mail