Copyright ©1997-2011 Glenn Fleishman except as noted otherwise. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, contact Glenn Fleishman at glenn at glennf.com. Photo © 2008 Laurence Chen; used with permission.
Turning technology from mumbo-jumbo into rich tasty gumbo
I was just reading through some aspects of the CAN-SPAM law which goes into effect January 1, 2004, and realized that it is broadly applicable to normal email lists that have no ostensible commercial purpose. (Oddly, the bill was indexed incorrectly, so the key section — number five — is available only by scrolling down in Section 3.)
That is, if you’re running a regular email list that has links to a Web site that is commercial in nature (shows ads, sells a product, you make money in some fashion from it), you might need to comply with the requirements of the law.
Note that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Discuss any specific issues about this with licensed legal talent!
The law defines commercial electronic mail message as any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose). But if you only incidentally mention a Web site, you’re okay: The inclusion of a reference to a commercial entity or a link to the website of a commercial entity in an electronic mail message does not, by itself, cause such message to be treated as a commercial electronic mail message for purposes of this Act if the contents or circumstances of the message indicate a primary purpose other than commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service.
This makes it clearer and less clear, right? If you’re sending out editorial email, like a newsletter, that has advertisements in it or sponsors, or you point to your Web site which itself has advertisements or sponsors — if you’re using Yahoo Groups to send messages out, even — it would seem that a case could be made that you’re sending commercial electronic mail messages.
That said, complying with the law is pretty straightforward. In general, you have to have a legitimate return address with legitimate information in it.
(5) INCLUSION OF IDENTIFIER, OPT-OUT, AND PHYSICAL ADDRESS IN COMMERCIAL ELECTRONIC MAIL- (A) It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission of any commercial electronic mail message to a protected computer unless the message provides— (i) clear and conspicuous identification that the message is an advertisement or solicitation; (ii) clear and conspicuous notice of the opportunity under paragraph (3) to decline to receive further commercial electronic mail messages from the sender; and (iii) a valid physical postal address of the sender.
(B) Subparagraph (A)(i) does not apply to the transmission of a commercial electronic mail message if the recipient has given prior affirmative consent to receipt of the message.
Early in the bill, affirmative consent is defined as the recipient expressly consented to receive the message, either in response to a clear and conspicuous request for such consent or at the recipient’s own initiative. It’s pretty clear to me that double opt-in email would qualify, but I’m not 100-percent certain.
Thus, for me, the only thing missing from lists I currently run is a postal address, which I’ve begun to add. I’d suggest to everyone that they add a postal address. Some affiliate management services, like Commission Junction, are also requiring a phone number, which is not part of the law, and I’m not sure why Commission Junction is asking for that, too.
Oddly, because the major anti-spam organizations oppose this law — it legalizes opt-out marketing — I cannot find any good advice for complying with it. Suggestions?
I just posted my first entry to my personal blog in over a month. I had this theory — and it’s just a theory — that over the last few years blogging thrived as did community wireless networking groups because so many technically adept people were unemployed and underemployed. There are plenty of examples that defy this characterization, but you’ll often find the most prolific bloggers have time on their hands, like myself.
Whenever I get busy, my blog dwindles. You can practically draw a revenue/work graph line against frequency of posts. I’ve been devoting an increasing amount of time this fall (as well as money) to Wi-Fi Networking News, which is a blog, but it’s a professional and journalistic one. Why? Because it has revenue from advertising. I’ve even hired a contract writer to help me keep up with the flow of news.
In the early commercial Internet, many of the best-known sites had the least money, staff, and corporate interests behind them. They were labors of love created by clever people. In 1996, I sold my Web development company because I believed that by 1997, the Web would be taken over by slick development efforts fed by powerful backends that would allow, say, IBM’s site to be substantially more satisfying than sites that I could develop.
I was wrong, but only for a while. Companies poured money into Web sites built mostly by people who weren’t very clever — lots of advertising agencies and development firms spent a lot of client money building things that didn’t work. After the hekatomb of 2000, the sites that remain are generally highly functional, and the best sites are often now the most corporate. They figured out the most efficient way to best serve the most people. Exceptions abound there, too, of course, but it’s hard to create a big splash with a small site.
(Actually, I’d cite JiWire, a site for which I am the senior editor but was not involved in the programming of, as a great counter-example to my thesis: with just three programmers using JSP, the site is phenomenally useful and apparently quite easy to maintain and expand. Intel licensed JiWire’s hotspot directory, which I think proves the point.)
I expect blogging is trending this way. Clay Shirky, of course, said it best and most succinctly, but in brief more and more people and news stories point to fewer and fewer blogs that have ever-increasing traffic and revenue (or funding, not the same thing).
The fact that many people read a few blogs doesn’t reduce the importance when you have niche audiences of small numbers reading many blogs. This blog is read by a few hundred people a day, mostly friends and colleagues, and it doesn’t diminish my interest in writing here to know that. Likewise, my Wi-Fi blog is read by several thousand people today, a drop in the tech bucket, but I know many of those thousands of people, and they’re folks deeply involved in creating the technology and products of the industry. We have a conversation on that blog, even though it’s a news site.
What’s my point here? If you don’t hear much from me, congratulate me. I must be doing well. If you see vast numbers of posts on Wi-Fi Networking News, ditto.
I’ve tried many ways to can spam, and I can’t say any of them is even 99 percent effective. But I have reduced the amount of time I spent dealing with spam by about 90 to 95 percent, which is at least a couple of hours a week.
What do I do?
First, SpamAssassin lives on my server. SpamAssassin uses a complex set of rules and can check a database of user-contributed spam to assign a score. SpamAssassin throws away several hundred messages a day for me that I never even download because they score so high on the spam-o-meter.
Not everyone can use SpamAssassin — it has to live on the server. But most ISPs now offer some kind of spam filtering option. I use Fastmail.fm to retrieve and send email via a secure Web connection when I’m on the road and away from a real Internet connection, and they offer both virus scanning and various levels of spam filtering. Ditto Earthlink and many others.
Second, I use Bayesian filtering on my local email client. The spam that passes SpamAssassin gets checked using the Mac-only SpamSieve which looks at statistical analyses of email that you mark as ham (good) or spam (bad) to assign a probability that a given incoming message is spam or not. It’s pretty accurate, and catches most of the rest.
Another interesting option is challenge-and-response email. Mailblocks asked me to test their email service for a potential article a few months ago. I rewired two old addresses — one of them in operation since May 1994 and thus spam-a-rama-attractive — to point to my Mailblocks account. Until and unless I block certain addresses, any incoming message receives a unique confirmation response. The sender has to respond to the human-only challenge (an image that a computer can’t parse) to have their message to me and subsequent messages approved without a further challenge.
This works exceptionally well. My account has processed 10,000s of messages, and the handful of messages (maybe 10 a month) from old friends and colleagues manage to get through since they bother to answer the challenge. This isn’t appropriate for everyone because it requires an account that you don’t mind if some people won’t bother to answer the challenge on — thus, not a working freelancer email account like my primary one. But for home users and many business owners, challenge and response with Mailblocks would be an enomous aid,.
Mailblocks accounts’ messages can be retrieved via the Web or an IMAP-capable mail browser.
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