FTC Spam Forum Dispatch

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Hello from Washington, where I'm deep in the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) three-day Spam Forum.

How to control spam remains an open question that won't be solved here this week. But what the event has done is help forge a universal accord that spam can no longer be considered a benign annoyance. It's got to stop. Christine O. Gregoire, Washington State attorney general confessed she formerly advocated using the delete button to deal with spam. This week, she's introducing another proposed piece of anti-spam legislation, the REDUCE Spam Act 2003.

The purpose of the forum is to provide the FTC and, later, Congress with the latest information and opinions on e-mail problems and issues. There's been "more talk than knowledge about spam," as FTC chief Timothy Muris put it.

FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson wasn't off base in saying, "We'll look back on these days as one of the most significant international events that deals with the subject of spam." In addition to members of Congress, attorneys general, and FTC officials, some 60 speakers representing the spectrum of e-mail -- marketers, ISPs, lawyers, advocates, security and tech experts, e-mailers, blacklist operators, you name it -- are discussing the issue.

The forum is open to the public. The public attending is a veritable industry who's who (this may be the best networking event I've ever attended). The audience comprises executives from companies such as AOL, MSN, DoubleClick, Experian, and Google, as well as from smaller marketers, security companies, and ISPs.

What makes the Spam Forum different from most other industry gatherings is the overwhelmingly fraternal atmosphere. Sure, there are disagreements. Some panels certainly had Jerry Springer-like moments (Direct Marketing Association chief Bob Wientzen was roundly booed and hissed when he voiced support for opt-out as a subscription standard; a dubious mailer sparked skepticism by citing his listing in the Las Vegas phone book as a testament to his legitimacy as a marketer), but overall this overflow crowd of some 500 is bound by a fraternal sense of shared mission.

One of my recent columns took to task the Balkanization of the anti-spam movement. Spam is a chain of events that negatively impacts everything it touches between being sent and its final destination (inbox, bulk mail folder, or black hole). The affected parties are taking actions to protect themselves that inadvertently impact, usually negatively, those up- and downstream. Spammers discredit legitimate marketers. Legitimate mailings then result in ISPs throwing up blocks. These prevent consumers from receiving wanted e-mail. Complaints, blame, and accusations abound, and spam is unthwarted.

This week, the FTC set the stage for everyone to feel one another's pain. The aggrieved camps are beginning to commiserate instead of finger-point, and they're hearing and understanding alternate points of view. Sure, we've heard from half a dozen prominent members of Congress about pending legislation, such as CAN-SPAM. We're also hearing from each other.

Quietly, the Network Advertising Initiative's (NAI's) Email Service Provider Coalition arranged a dinner Wednesday night for members of the newly formed anti-spam alliance between MSN, Yahoo!, and AOL. Congressional members, FTC officials, and a major marketing organization were present. "We made certain to distribute the different groups evenly around the table so everyone's voice could be heard," NAI Executive Director Trevor Hughes told me. "There wasn't a formal agenda. We wanted everyone to talk."

In addition to talk, there were memorable deeds. AOL's Margot Koschier demonstrated how easy it is to falsify a sender address on an e-mail. Before she could finish, a message popped into her own onscreen inbox. The sender: goodpresentation@yahoo.com.

SpamCon announced it's established a tax-deductible fund to support legitimate marketers and spam combatants facing lawsuits brought by spammers. "It's important these issues be heard," explained President Laura Atkins, adding the organization is recruiting attorneys for the advisory board to administer the fund.

E-mail marketing best practices, such as whether opt-in or opt-out are acceptable standards, remain subjects of debate. New issues are rising to the fore, particularly around unsubscribe problems. Despite evidence to the contrary, consumers have been conditioned not to click an "unsubscribe" link for fear of inviting more junk e-mail. Bigfoot Interactive submitted new research Thursday indicating an overwhelming majority of consumers want their ISPs to provide an unsubscribe function for them -- in addition to the much-maligned "report spam" button. ePrivacy Group is developing such a tool, CEO Vincent Schiavone told me, and it's soliciting marketers' input.

Another hot topic is whether federal anti-spam legislation should mandate bulk e-mail be branded with "ADV," which most legitimate marketers fervently oppose. We had an opportunity to voice our opinion and be heard. We also discovered we have the support of members of the anti-spam and consumer education community on that issue when Tim Lordan of Internet Education Foundation, Jason Catlett of Junkbusters, and Ted Gavin of SpamCon all publicly agreed the measure would do little good.

Spam is peaking as an issue in the Zeitgeist. This forum and spam in general are suddenly covered on a daily basis, in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. We're on CNN and MSNBC. Reporters from mainstream media are swarming the event. Now is absolutely the time to raise our voices and state our opinions. Spam legislation will very likely be debated in the next session of Congress. Sen. Chuck Schumer and other sponsors of various spam-related measures are actively soliciting our opinion. The time to speak up is now.

More than ever, the FTC's Spam Forum emphasizes how much industry, governmental, and legal sectors must work together to create a united front and seek unified solutions. Three cheers for FTC attorneys Brian Huseman and Renard Francois, as well as for their boss, Associate Director Eileen Harrington, for organizing this critical event (and thanks for inviting ClickZ columnists Ben Isaacson, Al DiGuido, and yours truly to address this very illustrious and important group).

Meet Rebecca at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.

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