Unsolicited Bulk Email

James Edwards
What is spam? We all know what spam is when we are on the receiving end. Every day most of us delete endless meaningless emails from sources we don't know or care about. So is that what spam really is? Unsolicited bulk email?

Even the term "unsolicited" is vague. And where does the adult webmaster draw the line? If we purchase mailing lists of individuals interested in nudity, are we sending spam? Well, it depends on the list. The adult webmaster, in today's world, has to draw an ethical and legal distinction between spam and legitimate mass marketing.

One huge misconception about spam is that people usually think of the adult industry as the major offender. The fact is, spam today is dominated by many more traditional industries such as real estate, pharmaceuticals and investing.

One trip to my website's spam box tells us this story. In the past two days, the spam folder received 12 unsolicited emails for investments, 12 for pharmaceutical products and a meager two messages for adult websites.

One reason why we see less spam originating from the adult industry is that keywords have been easier to trap, including words such as "nude" and "sex." It is harder for software to detect keywords regarding pharmaceuticals or investments.

Another reason why adult spam has diminished is because it is easier to file a lawsuit against unwanted nudity or lewd emails than against email asking you to invest in Nigeria — even if the Nigerian email is intended to steal your identity and drain your bank account. The Can-Spam Act, which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, has specific provisions against any "sexually explicit" emails. This makes prosecution of adult industry spammers easier than prosecuting a spammer selling you low-interest mortgage loans.

The new Can-Spam Act goes further, in that it forces adult industry mass marketers to label their bulk emails as "Sexually Explicit." So far, a number of individuals and companies have been charged under this act by the FTC for not complying. Companies also have been prosecuted for hiding the real domains of their emails, thus making it impossible for a consumer to request removal from a marketing list.

The constitutionality of the Can-Spam Act is being challenged, but spammers are also at risk from private companies who are suing them for copyright infringement. For instance, Microsoft has filed more than 50 lawsuits for copyright infringement and has been awarded millions of dollars for its efforts.

One way to avoid these legal obstacles is to host your adult websites overseas. When I trace back one of the bulk emails I received: "It Works Grëat CìAIS VÍAGRRA" — I find that it originated from an IP address in the Netherlands.

By locating your mass emailing in a foreign country, you avoid some Can-Spam Act problems. Of course, if your business is in the United States, you will still be seen as violating the law, which forbids the use of proxy servers and requires a link for a customer to unsubscribe from your list.

If you are in the adult industry and you want to use bulk email marketing, you should follow these simple rules:

  • Label your emails as being sexually explicit. Make it clear that your email is for an adult website and for adults only. Furthermore, do not display sexually explicit material on your link until you have verified the age of the visitor.

  • Give customers a way to unsubscribe. Don't use proxy domains. Can-Spam requires you to provide a link and a valid return email address so customers can opt out.

  • Don't violate copyright law. Of course using someone else's content is illegal. But under the new Can-Spam law, it's even easier to prosecute the offender, as Microsoft has shown.

  • Know thy mailing lists. When deciding to engage in mass marketing, the easiest way to avoid Can-Spam and to maximize profits is to get lists of qualified adult customers. The more targeted your list is, the more revenue you will make and the less you will risk having a complaint filed against you with the FTC.

    Mailing lists obtained by Ad-Ware, or even worse, Trojan horses that scan a person's address book, should never be used. Keep in mind that the cheapest lists are probably stolen. With the proliferation of online theft, you can become an accomplice if you use these lists.

  • Pay heed to the Anti-Spam Alliance. The Anti-Spam Alliance was founded in 2003 by AOL, Yahoo and Earthlink. These companies aggressively litigate against spammers who violate provisions of the Can-Spam Act. AOL even recently offered a giveaway of cash seized in a spam lawsuit.

Of course, even if you do all of these things perfectly, expect much of your email to be thrown out by spam-detection software. This software is based on string recognition algorithms that identify email sent from the same domain to numerous users and/or email messages with questionable keywords.

Many people who send mass emails foil spam-blocking software by changing the subject content slightly in each email. For instance, I might get an email telling me "susy18923 is in love with you, call her now!" and my neighbor would be informed that susy18924 was the love of his life. There is nothing illegal about this practice.

Another tactic that the adult webmaster must consider when sending bulk email is the removal of all sexually explicit wording. Many spam blockers and other email filters will immediately reject email containing obscene words or even words on a dynamic list. Choosing random words obtained from a thesaurus can temporarily avoid this tactic, and it is legal, as long as the Can-Spam provisions are followed.

The moral of this story is that the glory days of spam are probably over for the legitimate businessperson. But who wants to send spam anyway? Every adult webmaster would love to send his emails only to targeted customers, as would even the webmaster who sells questionable oceanfront real estate in Arizona.

Therefore, the key to the future of bulk email is not some high-tech solution but simply a refocusing on target marketing. This basic rule of marketing will make your email campaigns more effective and benefit both the Internet user and your particular business. Failing to do this could result in strong opposition from the forces that wish to stop or control bulk email and the Internet.

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