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Privacy Groups Create E-mail Seal Program

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Posted January 31, 2002 By Christopher Saunders     Feedback

UPDATE: If successful, a self-regulatory move by the industry that aims to curb spam would have major ramifications for ISPs, consumers and online marketers.

Privacy organizations TRUSTe and ePrivacy Group are set to unveil a seal program designed to help improve consumer confidence in e-mail marketing.

The groups' "Trusted Sender" program, currently in a trial phase, will offer a seal of certification for commercial e-mail messages. Like the online privacy seal program administered by nonprofit TRUSTe, the Trusted Sender effort will allow e-mail recipients to click on a seal or a text link (located in the upper-right corner of an e-mail) and validate the sender's identity using technology from provider ePrivacy. The groups also said the program would offer a dispute-resolution service, through TRUSTe.

Clicking on the seal or link also would verify that the sender follows a set of standards designed to curb spam. Those standards include accurate subject lines, the ability to successfully opt-out of future mailings and an adherence to "fair information practice principles and e-mail best practices."

Importantly for the online marketing industry, TRUSTe's "best practices" highlight the use of e-mail addresses for consumers with whom a company has a prior business relationship -- such as a sale. The rules do not apply to rented lists or shared databases.

According to spokespeople, the seals could begin appearing as early as next month in trial e-mails from DoubleClick, Microsoft, Topica, Bigfoot Interactive, RappCollins Innovyx, E-Dialog, ClickAction, Enterprise Marketing Solutions Inc. and Virtumundo.

The first program of its kind, Trusted Sender theoretically should boost consumers' ability to weed out what are arguably the worst kinds of spam -- e-mails sent from unknown mailers, with misleading subject lines, and no assured way to opt-out of future mailings.

"Consumers consider spam as an intrusion on their privacy. With the Trusted Sender program, consumers will now have guideposts to allow them to easily verify the legitimacy of e-mail messages, gain greater control over their inbox, and turn to a third party to resolve disputes," said TRUSTe executive director Fran Maier. "We invite every company that uses e-mail to communicate with consumers to join us in this unprecedented initiative to build consumer trust."

How it would work in practice, at least in its current incarnation, remains to be seen. That's because the Trusted Sender seal is only visible when opening an e-mail. To check for a seal, consumers must risk opening spam, since it's obviously unclear from just the header and subject lines whether an e-mail is legitimate. Thanks to the use of mail-tracking technologies like Web bugs, consumers thus could potentially notify the spammer that their e-mails were opened -- paving the way for more unsolicited mail.

Spokespeople for the two groups said future versions of the seal program could address these shortcomings -- for instance, adding a feature allowing consumers to filter out commercial e-mail that doesn't bear the seal.

Internet services providers, too, could benefit from features added to the system that help them identify legitimate e-mail from spam. That would be a colossal boon for the ISP sector, since access providers bear the sizable costs associated with the delivery of millions of unwanted e-mail messages each day.

Though there isn't a firm deadline for it, an enhanced version of the program could be operating "pretty soon," said ePrivacy president and chief executive Vince Schiavone.

"That would allow consumers, ISPs, and the people that make [e-mail client] software to identify and perhaps prioritize e-mail," he said. "It could happen very, very quickly ... we can write the tags for ISPs to look for [the seal] and also, most of the e-mail boxes are controlled by Microsoft, AOL Time Warner, IBM, Yahoo! and Qualcomm," -- so a wide-scale effort would need approval by only a few key players.

Still, the new program is unlikely to satisfy the industry's harshest critics, such as those advocating "opt-in" and "double opt-in" policies that give consumers explicit choice over whether to begin receiving mailings. Instead, the TRUSTe guidelines, while prohibiting list rentals, do tend toward "opt-out" -- thereby placing the onus on consumers to ask to be removed from future mailings.

Nevertheless, Trusted Sender spokespeople defended the program's position.

"We don't have companies participating that are all the way on the opt-in side, the double-opt-in side, but [the participants] are pretty darn good," Schiavone said. "We're talking about giving consumers and the ISPs control, and mailers the tools to be accountable. We think that's a positive step."

Additionally, it's also unclear whether marketing services firms participating in the trial would be obligated to adhere to the standards for all of their e-mail, or merely for select campaigns.

But, Maier said, "The thought is eventually they'll use it in all of their commercial e-mail."

At any rate, the move comes amid growing industry concerns over the efficacy of e-mail marketing, due to increasing levels of spam -- which encourages consumers to avoid giving out their address online, and to avoid opening e-mail messages from unrecognized senders.

"E-mail is the life-blood of an increasingly networked world, but its effectiveness is severely threatened by the amount of unwanted and unsolicited e-mail," said TRUSTe chairman and co-founder Lori Fena.

The move also constitutes a play by online marketers to head off any potential governmental regulation of spam. TRUSTe, while a nonprofit, is sponsored by AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, and Verizon, among other corporations. TRUSTe and ePrivacy also said the program had been endorsed by the Direct Marketing Association's Association of Interactive Marketing unit, and the International Association of Privacy Officers.

"We see the Trusted Sender program as a promising way to add trust and confidence to e-mail and improve the channel for communications and marketing purposes," said AIM executive director Ben Isaacson.

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