Saturday, July 5, 2003

The National Do Not Call Registry

How the Government Ruined My Inbox

Don't get me wrong – I love the National Do Not Call Registry. It's one of those rare and inspired examples of Federal consumer protection. It works great and it's free! Hot damn!

But there is a dark awful consequence of my home telephone's silence: the insidious chirp of my email client. (I think if I had to listen to that AOL voice tell me I had mail every fifteen minutes of everyday I'd have lost it long it is, the bouncing Outlook/Entourage "E" – which just started as I write this – is pushing me over the edge.)

In case you've been in a hole for the last few months (or buried under mountains of spam), the National Do Not Call Registry is a free service, intended to block most telemarketing calls, launched and managed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The nationwide-registry grew to more than 10 million phone numbers in the first four days following its launch in late June. At the height of the registration surge – the first day – 158 phone numbers were signed up every second. About 85 percent of the numbers have been registered online, at; the remainder by calling toll-free at 1-888-382-1222.

The FTC expects that, of the 166 million residential phone numbers in the United States, up to 60 million will be registered in just the first year. Registries who sign up by August 31 should see an 80 percent decrease in telemarketing calls after FTC enforcement begins on Oct. 1, 2003.

Of course, the telemarketing industry estimates the National Do Not Call Registry could cut its business in half – costing it up to $50 billion in sales each year. Hold back the tears. I think I felt worse when the Fed "crippled" the crack industry.

And it's been great. We were already on the Georgia No Call List and now, with the Federal list to boot, the phones are silent. But those mass marketers, the same people who brought us the auto dialer and the recorded telemarketer, have (of course) other ways into our homes: Namely, spam.

That's not to say that you shouldn't expect an increase in your snail mailbox, too, but spam is where it really hurts. Already marketing and Internet watchdogs have reported an increase in spam volume online. It may strike you as strange – and it will likely shock email marketers – but I don't need a new mortgage, my own online casino, Human Growth Hormone, Viagra, penis enlargement, mini spy cameras, prescription drugs, hardcore pornography, or (the coup de grace, here) the ability to send my own mass emails.

Spam is such a hated medium for unsolicited marketing, though, that even The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) doesn't like it. According to a poll by Harris International, 96 percent of Internet users find spam "annoying," 80 percent consider it "very annoying," and 74 percent find it "so objectionable that they would like to see it outlawed." The Wall Street Journal reports that spam now comprises 41 percent of all e-mail, and the torrent of this useless data costs corporations $8.9 billion a year.

This all begs the critical questions: Where the hell is the National Do Not Spam Registry? The government freed my phone – it's time for Spam-Free America!

Our hopes may very well rest in the 108th Congress. Anti-spam legislation is going to be debated, including the "Ban on Deceptive Unsolicited Bulk Electronic Mail Act of 2003," the "Criminal Spam Act of 2003," and the creatively named "Anti-Spam Act of 2003."

The Anti-Spam Act of 2003 would require all commercial e-mail messages to be identified as such (but not with a standard label , except for sexually explicit messages), and to include the sender's physical street address and an opt-out mechanism. Messages relating to a specific transaction and consented to by the recipient would be exempt from those requirements. The bill would prohibit commercial e-mail messages with false or misleading message headers or misleading subject lines and it would be illegal to send commercial e-mail messages to addresses generated by an automated dictionary attack.

But when you consider that the National Do Not Call Registry took three years of focus group and survey research to execute, the hopes for immediate Spam protection fade quickly. And while efforts such as the Anti-Spam Act look to regulate the offensive media, they are not without opposition. The DMA, for one, is opposed to what is likely the most obvious and reasonable legislative request: the mandatory opt-out mechanism.

In the mean time, I'm anxiously waiting for the chance to report an fraudulent violation of the National Registry (the telemarketer gets a nice fat fine) and biding my time until the National Do Not Spam Registry becomes a reality. Precedent has been set...

We won't be holding our breath, but we will be filtering our email. fb

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