If you must spam

Spam is intrusive, spam is offensive, and spam takes up bandwidth and time. But might there be a responsible way to spam?

Sure, you say (as you motion for the men in the white coats), just like there's a responsible way to con the elderly, destroy the rain forest, or wash red sweatshirts with white underwear. Experience simply doesn't support the notion.

Stamping out junk e-mail has become a digital holy war as hackers pursue known senders, the Washington State legislature passes the first law in the US banning blatant abuses, and people like me routinely complain to Internet service providers about those who spam us.

See end of article for related links.

Yet unsolicited commercial e-mail is nothing more than an electronic marketing message, and we've come to terms with marketing messages in every other medium—including the World Wide Web—even if it means tuning them out. Could it be that what really gets the emotional, anti-spam hackles up is genuinely fraudulent spam?

Colleague Bud Smith and I planned to propose a kinder, gentler way to spam in Marketing Online for Dummies. After discussion with our editors, we agreed to pull that very brief section from the book out of the understandable fear of the controversy it might generate—though we also firmly stated that spamming is the most offensive and least effective Internet marketing tactic. But perhaps those businesses that insist on sending spam could make it more palatable if all traces of fraud were removed from the recipe.

Herewith, the Responsible Spammer's Pledge, offered in the spirit of common sense, honor, and my recollection of the Boy Scout Creed. Your legal mileage may vary. We hold that commercial e-mailers should, at a minimum, commit to the following:

Call a spam a spam. Senders must make it clear that the message is commercial in nature, starting the subject line with "UCE:" (for Unsolicited Commercial E-mail) or "Ad:" (for Advertisement), followed by the true subject—not the usual misleading red herrings such as "Information Request," "Extra Income," or "Free Stuff!" Even AOL members don't believe that.

Keep it really short. A brief message, unwanted or not, seems less of a hassle (at the gut level) to scan and delete.

Don't forge the return address. Some companies that sell software for bulk e-mailing crow about its capability to fake return e-mail addresses so hostile responses won't go to the sender. That certainly doesn't encourage repeat business: Who wants to patronize a store that has to keep moving to avoid unhappy customers?

Don't advertise anything offensive or illegal. Much spam advertises things that people don't talk about in polite society—like porn, pyramid schemes, or ways to hijack cable service. A business tarnishes its good name by including anything dubious in spam, no matter how minor.

Don't steal the services of others. Spamming software that relays a single e-mail message to some other, innocent organization's mail server for duplication and mailing is a flat-out theft of services. So is opening an

e-mail account with America Online, Hotmail, or another e-mail service strictly to send spam—and closing it before flames and gendarmes arrive.

Honor all remove requests. Clear, simple instructions should be included at both the beginning and end of all e-mail messages on how a recipient can be permanently removed from future mailings—and requests must be honored before any subsequent mailing.

Indeed, Washington State's new anti-spam law that takes effect June 11 is a step in this direction, focusing more on fraudulent addresses and subjects than the actual sending of commercial e-mail. One regional Internet service provider estimates that it automatically bounces at least 10,000 fraudulent spam messages each day.

True, guidelines might not work, and believing spammers can be trusted to be good online citizens might belong with belief in the Easter Bunny and Kim Basinger's acting ability. But the first step in taming spam may be like the first step in domesticating wild animals—you can't teach them to behave until they know what the rules are.

Byte off

For the next two weeks, I'll be in a place where laptop computers and wry comments on the state of technology are not allowed: on vacation with my 11-year-old son. Byte Me returns, refreshed and rebooted, on May 7.

Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for interactive multimedia and software companies, can be reached at catalano@catalanoconsulting.com.

Complete Byte Me archives are available at www.catalanoconsulting.com

Related Links:

The boycott spam page

http://spam.abuse.net/spam/

 
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