Studies are proclaiming the death of email marketing due to rampant spam. States are passing laws limiting email-marketing practices (Minnesota was the most recent). New York's ubiquitous Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer is going after spammers in his state (anyone else suspect Mr. Spitzer is aiming for Hillary's Senate seat?). The FTC is aggressively investigating duplicitous email marketing practices.
Even the once-feared "Black Hole" lists seem to be having difficulty keeping up with the variety of spam sources and the bevy of legal challenges being thrown at them. And some are going so far as to say that ISPs will be forced to shut down mail servers under the increasing spam loads.
I'm not sure these efforts to combat spam will be at all fruitful, but it's really about time we start making some progress on the issue.
Many people debate the ethics of unsolicited email, but the sheer volumes being pushed today should prove to us conclusively that it is working for someone. Until we get some reasonable measure of industry self-governance in this arena, it will continue to be a simple matter for anyone with a DSL line or Cable modem to blindly abuse email.
So what attempts have been made to address the problem? State and National laws, though good to reinforce consumer privacy protection, do little to stop the actual flow of spam from mail servers outside the US. "Black Hole" lists don't work. They are sometimes renegade, nearly always rife with conflicts of interest, and generally too petty and self-serving to be effective across the entire industry.
What hasn't been tried? Instead of creating a database of abusive mail servers from which messages are denied (Black Hole lists), why not address the issue in the reverse manner? What if all bulk email messaging was to be run through filters at the ISP level that would check the source of the email and determine whether it was on a list of "approved" email servers?
I propose the REASN (Registered Email Advertising Server Network) database.
In my model, the major players in the email marketing world would get together to create a centralized database of mail servers from which "legitimate" email marketing would be sent. These players would agree to a set of rules for inclusion in the database. Adherence to the rules would guarantee acceptance into the approved email marketer database. I would imagine these rules should include, at minimum:
Other, smarter people could probably come up with a more complete list of restrictions.
This database of "acceptable" email marketing sources would be supported by the marketers themselves and offered free of charge to ISPs. These ISPs would then be free to implement filtering of bulk messaging that originates from servers not on the "approved" list.
I suspect the major debate in implementing such a system would involve whether to forbid all opt-out or unsolicited mailings. Personally, I lean towards allowing providers who send opt-out or unsolicited mailings to participate in the database. Forcing them to conform to rules that provide consumers with information on the source of the mailing (who sold their personal data) and simple mechanisms to opt out of further messages would be sufficient to stem the tide of email abuse.
Administration of the system I propose would be difficult, but not impossible. It would undoubtedly require a small staff to process additions and deletions from the database. This investment by the industry, however, would be well worth it. As spam houses were filtered away, the effectiveness of more legitimate email marketing would improve and those participating in the REASN database would certainly see the financial rewards of the system.
Would a REASN database thwart every bulk email offender? Of course not. But it would be a step in the right direction for an industry sorely in need of some progress.
Scott Brew is President & CEO of Adtegrity.com, an online advertising network and marketing services firm based in Grand Rapids, MI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.