Editorial: Law buys time for e-mail ads

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Marketers caught a big break in the "spam" law Congress passed last week. The lawmakers bought the moderate approach advocated by business and granted marketers (and Internet service providers) more time to try and bring the spam plague under control. While increasing fines and penalties, they turned aside demands that all commercial e-mails be requested by the recipient (opt-in) and sanctioned the continued use (with restrictions) of unsolicited e-mail offers provided they offer easy opt-out features. And they gave e-mail marketers a respite from state-by-state regulation, preempting a rash of state laws, including a far more radical California spam law set to take effect in January.

All in all, it was a remarkable achievement in a potentially difficult political environment. (Consider the lack of success telemarketers had in tempering "do-not-call" legislation.) That's the good news. The bad news is that no one can be certain that a new law and tougher fines and penalties can actually bring spam under control. Abusive spammers, many sending from outside the U.S., have been adept at evading technological barriers and law enforcers. If consumers don't see a difference in their Internet e-mail boxes, if the objectionable offers for penis enlargements, cut-rate Viagra and pornography continue, the public will be back pressuring lawmakers for something more.

E-mail marketers have been given a precious opportunity to sell their medium. If Americans are familiar with Internet shopping, the spam plague has left them frosty about the value of e-mail advertising (though 9% of American e-mail users made a purchase in response to an unsolicited e-mail offer in a recent 12-month period, according to a Direct Marketing Association survey). In a world of permission marketing, it will take hard work to keep the e-mail box open to advertisers-no matter what the law allows.

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