Can Stronger Self-Regulation Save Us From The Government?

Regulators don't understand email and Internet advertising -- that much was clear from discussions at the Email Insider Summit this week.

During one session, Kevin Olsen, director of consumer protection for the state of Utah, said that he expected email senders to be identifiable and to know where their email recipients are located. Olsen said that there needs to be a way to find out where emails are coming from so violators of federal and state laws can be held accountable, adding that he doesn't understand what's holding email authentication back. He was unsympathetic when Dave Hendricks of Datran Media -- to considerable applause -- said, "It really sounds stupid to me" that states would try to exert jurisdiction over email when subscribers are mobile and emails travel over networks nationally.

In another session, panelists were at odds over the proposed do-not-track list, with some comfortable with more consumer control and others defending tracking-based relevancy and rejecting the measure as unenforceable. After the session, Alan Chapell, president of Chapell Associates, said, "I know a lot of the people that were involved with the legislation, and I don't know what the heck they were thinking."

Regardless, these incidents are clearly proof that we as an industry are not doing enough to respect consumers, spread best practices and make it difficult for spammers. At one point during Olsen's talk he said, "This whole email system is based on trust and... if there's no way to maintain that trust. then you're going to lose that as a marketing channel." That should set off some alarm bells with all email marketers.

During the closing session there was a lively debate about opt-in practices, with a couple of attendees from Italy pointing out that double opt-in is mandated in Europe. There is no permission standard in the U.S. and it was accurately pointed out that some companies -- most notably many retailers -- remain opt-out. With such a discrepancy in standards, it seems to me only a matter of time before Congress or the states take more action -- probably clumsily. Why not be proactive as an industry and make a bold concerted effort to make improvements?

During the closing session, Bill McCloskey of Email Data Source said he was concerned that positive stories about email are rare in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps there's a positive change we can all get behind that will generate more positive stories. How about working with the major ISPs to establish mandatory authentication for senders that want to send more than X emails any given day? How about establishing a single opt-in as the minimum standard for permission in the industry?

Surely there's more we can do to show that we support responsible email practices. I welcome any ideas you might have.

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