Spam Law Test

Illustration by Stuart Bradford
Illustration: Stuart Bradford
Cleansing our inboxes of spam was supposed to get easier following passage of the nation's sweeping antispam law, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act. The law, which celebrates its first anniversary in January, requires (among other things) that recipients be allowed to opt out of being included in a marketing mailing list, simply by clicking a link on an e-mail notice from the marketer. In addition, the CAN-SPAM Act establishes harsh penalties for senders whose e-mail messages fail to meet its requirements.

Testing the Law

Few people seriously expected CAN-SPAM to discourage the prolific no-name offshore spammers. However, in a test in which we signed up for and then attempted to opt out of receiving marketing e-mail from 100 heavily trafficked U.S. Web sites, we were surprised to discover that when we tried to unsubscribe, several of the best-known sites--among them Amazon.com--continued to send us e-mail after the ten-day grace period that the law allows had expired.

Overall, we were unable to stop e-mail from 15 of the sites (or from their partners) without resorting to calling their media-relations representatives. Our investigation also revealed that the spam law's sometimes vague language makes it difficult for users to stop getting unwanted e-mail.

The CAN-SPAM Act stipulates that all marketing e-mail messages must include both an easy-to-locate opt-out link and the sender's postal mail address. The law also requires that commercial e-mailers--as well as their marketing partners--honor opt-out requests within ten days of receiving them.

To test how well the business community at large is complying with CAN-SPAM, we visited the Web pages of 100 leading firms in various industries, including retail, travel, media, and financial services. Using a unique e-mail address at each site, we signed up for at least one newsletter offered there. As soon as the e-mail started to flow, we unsubscribed from all the lists.

The results weren't entirely disappointing: 78 of the companies sent messages that adhered to CAN-SPAM requirements, and honored our requests to stop receiving e-mail. Seven other companies sent us messages that lacked a physical postal address, but they did honor our opt-out request.

The addresses we used to sign up with the other 15 companies, however, continued to receive e-mail long after we tried to unsubscribe from the mailing lists. Two of the firms associated with those inboxes failed to include an opt-out mechanism in their e-mail; a third had an opt-out link that didn't work. Eight others continued to send us e-mail more than ten business days after we exercised their opt-out option; and we received e-mail from marketing partners of another four sites. (See the complete list of the companies we signed up with, our methodology, and our test results.)

When we asked companies about our difficulty in opting out, the responses varied. For example, Amazon.com, which continued to send e-mail after our opt-out request, acknowledged the error. A spokesperson blamed a technical aberration, which the company tells us has since been corrected.

Similarly, Internet Broadcasting Systems, which partners with television stations to publish local news Web sites, said that its failure to include an opt-out link with its Career Tips newsletter (a weekly e-mail) was an oversight. The company has since added such a link to the newsletter, which we received when we signed up for mail from Boston's ABC affiliate, WCVB-TV.

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