W@rning: What You Should Know about E-Mail Regulations before You Press Send

Article excerpt

If you're like most communication professionals, you've run your share of e-mail communication campaigns--newsletters, surveys, event notices, press releases, promotions, ads, etc. But did you know...

* There are numerous regulations defining how you should manage your e-mail campaigns--and when you break these laws, you're potentially liable for fines.

* Your e-mail can be blacklisted by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Yahoo!, AOL and MSN. Once this happens, your e-mail may not get through to the people you're sending it to--even if they have requested it.

* Sending e-mail campaigns from your own non-dedicated servers can negatively affect individual e-mail being sent from these servers.

Most communication professionals recognize the tremendous marketing platform and opportunity that e-mail represents: low communication costs, ease of distribution and delivery, and ability to gather and analyze data quickly. That's why this medium is growing exponentially, and why our e-mail inboxes are overflowing.

But as e-mail communication multiplies, it's also increasing in complexity. In the early days of commercial e-mail communication, there was less competition, less consumer and political backlash, and less technology to interfere with your efforts. Today, simply blasting out a message to a list doesn't work so well--and worse yet, it can cause legal and operational problems.

Managing e-mail communication campaigns requires understanding the legal ramifications, technical and operational considerations, and methods for optimizing the medium.

COMMERCIAL E-MAIL LAW

The explosion of unsolicited commercial e-mail in the last few years has led to a complaint heard around the world: "I'm sick of getting so much spam!" In response to this public outcry, governments have erected new legal barriers that define how unsolicited commercial e-mail may be used. Although most of us welcome these laws in hopes they will reduce the amount of garbage in our in-boxes, they also create explicit and implicit requirements for those of us managing solicited and unsolicited e-mail communication. To understand how these laws affect your e-mail communication, you must first understand the difference between "solicited" and "unsolicited" e-mail.

Solicited commercial e-mail is generally recognized as promotional e-mail you send to people you have done business with or who have requested information from you, and who through this existing relationship expressly or implicitly give you permission to communicate with them. Unsolicited commercial email is generally defined as promotional e-mail you send to people you have not done business with or who have not requested information, and who have thus never given you outright or tacit permission to communicate with them.

If the contacts on your e-mail list fall into the unsolicited category, you will have to weave your way through many international laws (see sidebar, page 10). In this case, legal consultation is advisable.

If your list is limited to solicited, or "permission-based," contacts, fewer legal restrictions apply. But to define your list legitimately as solicited or permission-based, you will need to ensure that it meets the requirements described below.

RULES OF THUMB FOR SOLICITED E-MAIL

Most compliance failure by communication professionals managing solicited or permission-based commercial e-mail is not the result of intentionally ignoring any laws. Instead, errors usually come from being unaware of the implicit requirements for permission-based lists. Although standards are evolving rapidly and much of the legal landscape still seems relatively gray, following some simple, smart practices and guidelines will help keep you out of hot water.

Post your privacy policy. Most companies and organizations post their privacy policy on their web sites for three reasons:

* To ensure trust with customers or members. …