As some of you will know, my piscatorial pursuits necessitated that I buy four licenses -- one for each state. This I duly and willingly did, taking advantage of the ability to do so online via a very useful site by the name of www.takemefishing.org that exists to promote fishing to the public at large.
All was well. I fished. Caught enough to keep me happy and provide some good memories.
At least until last week, when an email dropped into my inbox from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife caused me some concern. Here's what it said in full:
As you know, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife periodically sends out informational emails to our online customers. We only send these e-mails out to customers who have indicated that they would like to receive them.
Recently, we had a Freedom of Access Act request from an individual who represents an organization for our customer e-mail address list. The Freedom of Access Act is a statute that requires a state agency to provide public records to anyone upon request. Our initial response to the individual was that our customer e-mail address list was not a public record and was therefore not covered by the Freedom of Access Act. The individual appealed our decision with the Maine Attorney General's office that ruled in favor of the individual and directed IF&W to provide our customer e-mail address list to the individual. Therefore, we have recently provided our customer e-mail address list to the requesting individual per the direction of the Maine Attorney General's Office.
The list contains only e-mail addresses, no other personal data is on the list. We wanted you to know that we did everything in our power to protect your privacy and apologize in advance for any issues this may cause you.
To unsubscribe from this mailing list, click...
It transpires that the organization behind this request for the emails was the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. On one hand, you have to acknowledge that the Alliance has clearly spotted an opportunity, and one that (at least in Maine) has ultimately been recognized as legal, within the context of that state's laws relating to access to public information. As such, the group is demonstrating the kind of entrepreneurial flair that will give it an advantage. No doubt the Alliance seeks to harvest any other state-owned list it can identify as relevant in Maine, now armed with the ultimate WMD of the legal profession: precedent.
One can only assume, however, that this example will set the stage for others to follow suit and embark on a similar pursuit of email addresses in every other state in the union, and quite possibly the federal government as well. Maybe this has been happening for a while, and it was only the rude intrusion to my inbox that alerted me to it.
I give all credit to the state of Maine for seeking to resist the request -- after all, as a consumer I certainly don't want my email address readily available to anyone who wants it. But the fact is that because I bought my license online, anyone reading this can get my email address, know that I'm interested in fishing and leverage that however they wish. That's the status quo in Maine and quite possibly elsewhere.
OK, I can unsubscribe, but why should I have to, in order to protect myself from unwanted intrusion? It's one thing to unsubscribe because I'm no longer interested in the communication from the party I've signed up with, but to have to do so because a third party abuses the spirit of the law is far from satisfactory. Judging from the responses posted on local coverage of the story, others feel the same way.
Needless to say, this sort of thing is what gives the email marketing industry a bad name among consumers. Whatever industry professionals may say about best practices and ethics is meaningless to those who find themselves on the receiving end of such activity. And I've no idea how many potential "targets" there are on lists that would be regarded as public domain, if subject to the same legal interpretation as occurred in Maine.
Counting the number of people on state lists of those holding fishing licenses alone, this amounts to tens of millions of people. Not good. I dread to think of the many people on other lists that could potentially fall victim to such actions, lists far more sensitive than those relating to activities like fishing.
Of course, some will argue that all this represents nothing more than a smart approach to the letter of the law. But if you have any interest at all in preserving the trust necessary for the furtherance of email marketing -- and the slightest understanding of business ethics -- I would suggest that the ruling of the Maine Attorney General's office in this case sets a precedent that is at best a double-edged sword for the industry. Even more likely, this action will be ultimately damaging, accelerating the path to an intensified confrontation with the privacy lobby and increasing the potential for related legislation.