In Italy, Japan, Korea and the US, regulators and agitators are going for those sending unsolicited commercial e-mails in a big way, but what hope do they have of making a difference.
Topic: Email marketing
Who: South Korea's Fair Trade Commission, the Japanese Government, the Italian Data Protection Authority, Pitney Bowes and the USA's Telecommunications Research and Action Centre, National Consumers' League and Consumer Action
When: August – September 2002
Where: South Korea, Italy, Japan and the US
As reports reach us that in July 2002 over one third of all email activity in the US was unsolicited commercial email, regulators and consumer groups across the globe are taking action to try and stem the spam tide. In South Korea, the FTC has launched an official spam-blocking site "Nospam". Soon, any individual who registers with that site to not receive spam, can seek damages against those who continue to spam them thereafter.
In Japan, where it is estimated that about 800 billion commercial emails are sent to mobile phones and computers each day, new laws came into force in July 2002. These criminalize commercial emails or texts that are sent without prior consent. How this 'consent' can be obtained is not clear from reports we have to date, but it is hoped that the Japanese marketers are clear on the point, since the penalties can be up to £3.5 million and/or 2 years in prison.
In Italy the IDPA has ordered 7 companies to stop processing and delete all personal data which they have stored on their databases as a result of unlawfully sending bulk advertisements to email addresses randomly collected on the net without obtaining prior consent.
In the US, free consumer groups have called on the Federal Trade Commission to expand its definition of "unfair and deceptive trade practices" so as to include unsolicited commercial email which either misrepresents the sender, misrepresents the subject or the content of the email, fails to provide reliable contact information for the real party of interest, fails to provide a reliable opt-out system or is sent to an individual who has already opted out of the centre's list or to whom the sending of unsolicited commercial email is otherwise prohibited by law.
Meanwhile, in the face of these developments, a report of a survey conducted by mailing services specialist Pitney Bowes carries some interesting news. On the one hand it indicates that the level of email marketing used in the UK has risen by only 0.5% in the last 12 months. On the other, it suggests that email marketing activity still accounts for a significant 9.5% of all marketing activity undertaken by the UK's top 500 companies.
Why this matters:
History repeats itself as the indiscretions of the few spoil things for the many. On the other hand, as all of us are spending increasing amounts of our time during a business day identifying and deleting spam, one starts to wonder whether it is in fact only a few that are abusing this superficially attractive and cheap marketing channel. So, in time-honoured fashion, international regulators are circling, but the sheer enormity and global nature of the problem means that however sophisticated new laws and regulations become, enforcement is always going to be the main challenge. And the job is not going to be made any easier if regulators on both sides of the Atlantic continue in their present vein of each placing the lion's share of the blame on marketers on the other side of the pond!