What is CAN-SPAM Anyway?

Although the CAN-SPAM act was signed into law back in 2003, I still get email after email that does not comply with the regulations. As the Internet and email became a larger part of everyday American life, spam became a new favorite way for unethical marketers to make quick money. The CAN-SPAM act criminalized SPAM for the first time and finally provided consumers a way to help stop the flood of useless messages in their inbox.

In talking about the CAN-SPAM Act, it is important to first mention what is, and is not, covered under the law. The law covers email whose primary purpose is advertising or promoting a commercial product or service. Therefore, the funny email that you sent to your friend or coworker is not a violation. Also, a “transactional or relationship message” email that relates to an agreed-upon transaction or updates a customer in an existing business relationship is exempt from most provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act. That said, it is still illegal for such an email to contain false or misleading routing information.

The final act was well over 80 pages long, so here is the quick rundown of some of the key provisions.

The Act bans any false or misleading header information. This refers to the “From” and “To” header of the email that identifies the originating domain name and the person that sent the email. Deceptive subject lines are prohibited. It is against the law to title an email about a book review with “Lindsay Lohan Nude Pics”.

One more noticable requirement of the law is that recipients must have an opt-out method in the email. This can be a return email address or an opt-out link. When someone opts to no longer receive your emails, you have 10 business days to stop sending email to that address. Once someone opts-out, you also can’t sell or transfer the address to someone else for email purposes.

Probably the most violated requirement is that all commercial email must be identified as an advertisement and must include the sender’s valid physical postal address. The email has to be clear that it is a commercial email and the recipient has the option to no longer receive messages from you. If you are sending out to a mailing list, make sure you include your postal address to be in compliance.

The law allows the Department of Justice to seek criminal penalties, including imprisonment, who commit certain violations of the CAN-SPAM Act. There can also be fines of up to $11,000 PER EMAIL! While this act has mainly been enforced against a few mega-spammers, it applies to all commercial emails, including affiliate marketing. The FTC maintains a consumer complain database of violations. Consumers can submit their complaints online at http://www.ftc.gov/spam or by forwarding unwanted commercial email to spam@uce.gov

It is a shame that spammers have made life more difficult for all the honest marketers out there, but it is very important to keep the CAN-SPAM act in mind as you build your mailing list. While the requirements for compliance are small, the potential penalties are not.