Hate to Say I Told You So, But...

A few months ago, I warned that we who do business on the Web should be wary of well-intended legislators who were crafting new regulations and, for the first time, legislation that would change the way many of us do business. The "Do Not Call" registry was just the start, and email marketers who are scoffing at S.877, the so-called "Can Spam Act of 2003," remind me of the guys standing at the bar on the Titantic, ordering drinks to celebrate the commotion.

Here are a few facts that might provide some insight into how regular consumers (you know, the people who you want to have buy your clients' products) have been driving Congress to act.

The Pew Research Institute released data today that adds aggregated empiricism to the thousands of calls that House and Senate Staffers have been receiving this year. People - ordinary people - HATE spam, sometimes more than they hate telemarketers interrupting their dinner (Don't get me started).

  • 25% of email users claim that spam makes them less willing to use the medium entirely.
  • 30% of users surveyed claimed that as much as 80% of all the email they receive in their personal email accounts is unwanted spam.



    To understand what this means to your basic federal elected official, don't think of these people as consumers for a second. Think of them as voters. If you're a Senator from, say, Washington State, and more than 100 calls a day are streaming into your offices, mostly from women and parents, complaining about offensive, predominantly pornographic email, and this is all on a medium that you've been looking to derive revenue from but which you cannot tax on a federal level - yet, you might think of a Bill like S.877 as a very reasoned start.

    And believe me, folks, the Senators behind this Bill are regarded by their colleagues and those with access to power in Washington as among the more reasoned and level headed of all Senators when it comes to this sort of thing. Its chief sponsors are Conrad Burns (R-Montana), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and John Breaux (D-Louisiana). These men were among the holdouts who kept the more liberal versions of the Telecom Reform Act from passing under Fritz Hollings' leadership in 1994. It wasn't until Republicans gained the majority that the Telecom Act Passed, and the floodgates of investment and access made the Internet explode like it did. All those Senators were on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation then, as well as on the subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, which has jurisdiction over the Internet. It is meaningful that they are this Bill's chief sponsors.

    It's also meaningful that this Bill was initially drafted in April of this year, about six months ago. This isn't like the days in 2001 when there were more than three-dozen Bills introduced in both chambers of Congress that concerned online privacy. Spam isn't regarded as that kind of a populist issue, despite the high level of consumer concerns. Legislators have left it to those among their membership who know from this issue to tackle it, which is one reason why those online marketers who are yawning at this Bill are probably the same people that yawned at the beginning of the Do Not Call Registry.

    Some legislative measure designed to inhibit spam will pass in this session, kids. It might not be exactly like S.877. But, it will look an awful lot like it. And, in the next Congress, look for an Internet Tax Bill. Congress is increasingly regarding our medium as a parent might regard a wily but unpredictable teenager. On the one hand, there is so much potential (see: Fundraising/Dean). On the other hand, there is such a downside (see no tax revenue from billions of dollars of sales, pornography, more media outlets to have to be responsive to...).

    It would be one thing if Congress were still looking for ways to understand the Web and what it is that we do on it. But, they've gained a lot of ground these past two years. When an A team like Senators Burns, et al takes six months to draft and introduce a Bill like this one, the last thing that those who would be impacted by this new law should do is yawn. Hell, even the Direct Marketing Association is working with the FBI now to root out offensive spammers. Times... they are a changing.

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