The Big News: The email crackdown
by Jon Huntress, Contributing Editor
In the smorgasbord of formats for advertising online, the Big Cheese is still email. It was the first advertising vehicle on the Internet, and it's still one of the most effective ways to reach targeted consumers. Lately, though, this little-regulated advertising vehicle has ignited a firestorm of controversy. At issue: Should the public have the same legal right to privacy in email they have with telephone conversations? (The fact that the Web transcends national boundaries further clouds the issue. Who, indeed, will regulate it?)
Advertisers covet demographic information. Along with such basic data as consumer names and email addresses, they routinely ferret out such helpful selling information as personal interests, occupations, family size, and so on. It is not unheard of for agencies to ask for personal or family income, race, and political leanings. To Bob Lewin, executive director of TRUSTe, a firm that has pioneered the discussion on matters of Internet privacy, this kind of profiling is unsettling.
"The message we are trying to send is clear: handle with care. If (profiling) is not done intelligently, it can become a time-bomb," Lewin said. "(TRUSTe) will work with the media to let it be known that that here's a firm that is taking some of the most personal information that you and I have as consumers with plans to use it that are unbeknown to us."
According to Lewin, TRUSTE's mission is to build user confidence in the Internet through fair information practices. It draws on relationships with AOL, Intel, Microsoft, and hundreds of others to influence the debate and advocate its own privacy-centered ideologies.
To many, unsolicited email is the biggest advertising idea-gone-wrong since grocery store circulars started appearing in mail boxes. While many companies have used spam as a primary source of online advertising, most who use traditional means of advertising have also switched to unsolicited advertising-through the vehicle of email.
TRUSTe is not alone in its anti-spam sentiments. The Direct Marketing Association has joined the crusade, vowing to combat unwanted spam. On Monday, it introduced a new program to arm consumers who hate electronic junk mail- the Email Preference Service (E-MPS). All 4,600 members of the DMA who send unsolicited junk mail are now required to participate in the service, which blocks email addresses from being used by specific advertisers to consumers who choose not to receive their advertising messages. This service is available around the globe.
"We're hopeful that, over time, this will become a useful tool in preventing unsolicited bulk email from going to consumers who do not want it," says Stephen Altobelli, the DMA's director of public affairs. "We realize it is not a cure-all to spam, but we think it will be an immediate help to consumers who are bombarded by spam."
Whether or not the E-MPS will benefit consumers is unclear. Detractors say its scope is too limited and that the service doesn't even scrape the surface of the real problem. Many opponents of E-MPS advocate an opt-in system instead. Opt-in would reduce the number of consumers reached by advertisers to a fraction of the present number - but those consumers would be qualified, willing recipients of the message.
Unfortunately, when the public thinks of online advertising, it's most likely they think of one of two things. First, many think of the hundreds of unsolicited bulk emails they get every single year and the hassle of dealing with them. If not spam is not the first thing they think of, then it may well be the personal profile information that advertisers get in a variety of ways. Either one, online advertisers have not come across as being very user-friendly in the Internet's infant years. Lewin thinks the industry needs to self-regulate itself and become more in tune with what consumers want or they could pay the price.
"If marketing people don't understand that, and they don't take steps to guard against that from happening, it's such a politically sensitive issue that they'll find themselves under regulations that may cause and force them to (become more consumer friendly) which will probably be a little bit more expensive and a little bit more rigorous," he said.
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