September 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

Labels won’t reduce spam, FTC concludes

The CAN-Spam Act directed the FTC to study whether putting specific characters such as “ADV” in the subject lines of unsolicited commercial e-mail would make it easier for Internet service providers to identify and screen out spam. In its report, released in June, the FTC says that state laws requiring such labeling had failed to reduce spam and that it doubts a federal law would have any impact.

The Federal Trade Commission’s conclusion that labeling unsolicited commercial e-mail won’t reduce spam has struck a chord with e-mail marketers. “It’s consistent with what people are thinking about e-mail these days,” says Keith Wardell, CEO of Exmplar. “The spammers or bad players in the industry would not comply.”

The CAN-Spam Act directed the FTC to study whether putting specific characters such as “ADV” in the subject lines of unsolicited commercial e-mail would make it easier for Internet service providers to identify and screen out spam. In its report, released in June, the FTC says that state laws requiring such labeling had failed to reduce spam and that it doubts a federal law would have any impact.

In addition, the FTC says that legitimate marketers complying with the law could suffer because their e-mail messages would be filtered out while spam would go straight through to consumers’ e-mail boxes.

Instead of labeling, the FTC recommends that emphasis be placed on encouraging the industry to develop alternatives such as e-mail authentication. In fact, the industry already is working on authentication and other anti-spam measures, Wardell says. “The solution to the bad guys is to identify all the good guys” through e-mail authentication or so-called white lists, he says.

Efforts directed solely at identifying spammers are likely to be futile, because they jump from IP to IP, Wardell says. That’s not the case with legitimate merchants. “It’s a lot easier to find the good people because they’re traceable,” he says. “The bad people are not. They move IPs in a heartbeat.”

Through measures such as e-mail authentication and white lists, consumers would be able to determine whether an e-mail message comes from a legitimate merchant, Wardell says.

One commissioner, Jon Leibowitz, disagreed with the FTC recommendation, saying that while labeling commercial e-mail is not a panacea, it could be a modest tool to enable consumers to filter and sort through e-mail. Congress proposed the labeling requirement not as a way to screen out spam, but as a way to mark commercial e-mails, he says.

“Congress’s interest in ‘ADV’ labeling as a tool to deal with e-mail from legitimate marketers is well-founded,” Leibowitz said in a dissenting statement. “It is not clear that consumers want unsolicited commercial e-mail from legitimate marketers any more than they want, say, unsolicited phone calls.”

But Wardell says most legitimate marketers send e-mail only to people who have opted in or already have a strong relationship with the company. m

 

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