Email Spam Law Guide, Part 1: CAN-SPAM
As a short disclaimer before I start, I’d like to emphasize that I am in no way a legal expert on email or the internet. As little as a few weeks ago, I didn’t know what CAN-SPAM was, and even now, most of my knowledge comes from Wikipedia and questionably reliable forums and blogs. If you have serious questions about the legality of your email practices, please consult the nearest lawyer, which isn’t me, since I’m not a lawyer.
That being said, what I am is an expert in scouring the internet for useful information. Employing these skills, I embarked on a fact-finding mission over the past week to understand what exactly is legal, illegal, or legal-but-frowned-upon when it comes to email marketing.
The result is my Email Spam Law Guide. If you’re thinking of firing up an email marketing program for your B2B business, this might be a good place to start.
What I found is that the laws intended to fight spamming are actually pretty innocuous, and marketers can stay within the law by obeying a few relatively harmless guidelines.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean email servers enjoy delivering spam. A number of private-sector mechanisms have sprung up that effectively enforce tighter limits on email marketing than what is strictly legal. In part 2, I’ll tell you about both those techniques and how they could impact your email marketing strategy.
Since the first thing on my to-do list at all times is “Stay out of prison,” I’ll start with the legal definition of spam.
In 2003 George Bush signed Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing into law. CAN-SPAM, in addition to being a horribly forced acronym, was a piece of legislation that standardized spamming laws nationally. In doing so it overrode preexisting state laws that were in some cases actually stricter than the legislation that replaced them. CAN-SPAM has three basic requirements for anyone sending marketing emails:
- Unsubscribe Compliance: When emailing someone, you have to provide an unsubscribe option that can be triggered with just an email address (i.e. no onerous information requirements or fees). The request has to be honored within 10 days. It’s like the do-not-call list for phone numbers, except it only goes for the organization you unsubscribed from.
- Content Compliance: Your subject line has to have something to do with the content of the email. You have to provide an accurate email and physical address.
- Sending Behavior Compliance: You can’t send emails to a list harvested via a web spider or directory harvest (where you guess and validate likely email patterns, such as “[email protected]”). There are some other technical components that won’t concern most people doing honest email marketing.
And that’s really it. So long as your email complies with those three tenets, you can legally blast out emails without any sort of opt-in.
In other words, unsolicited email may be frowned upon, but it is NOT illegal.
Does that give you the green light to do it? Probably not. In the absence of powerful legislation, email servers have built up their own defenses against spamming.
In part 2, I’ll go over what some of these are, how they can hurt you, and the best ways to make sure your emails don’t land in a recipient’s spam folder.