The ways we communicate have changed as swiftly as the wave of the information age can carry them. Cell phone, email and other electronic communication brought information to the fore like no other time in history. Just as is the case with all moments of progress, there are times of regression. With good comes evil and with right comes wrong. With the advent of a new communication, style comes new communication risks. Let us take a journey back to see where it all began and how far it has come.
Origin of a species (of communication)
Email communication is gaining popularity as the most favorable way to communicate. Email (formerly E-mail, formerly Electronic Mail) began in the early sixties, courtesy of the brilliant minds over at MIT. (“The History of Email – The Origin of Email – Email Post Union,” n.d.) Their intention was not communication, however. Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the first location anywhere to have multiple computers connected to a single server computer and the link was by way of telephone modem. Their intention was to send files from one location to another, at a time when such “teleportation” was only in the science-fiction shows.
Much as Henry Ford perfected the assembly line, email needed a structured format. According to “The History of Email”, each origin computer was sending its message in a format incompatible with other machines and their formats. Third party software was finding its way into the middle of the fray, sifting through the emails and reformatting them like an old-time operator rerouted calls. It was not until the 1980’s that email found the norm of Header-Body, which allowed for seamless transmission of messages. From that moment on, communication changed forever.
The information sluggish highway
I remember being a child and running toward the mailbox after I got off the bus. I popped open the door of the box and reached in. What I retrieved made my heart skip a beat. It was a letter, handwritten to me from my grandmother. I anxiously opened the envelope, unfolded the letter and soaked in every word as my eyes moved down the page. The script was beautiful cursive and the penmanship was exquisite. The form in which it came only sweetened the message I received.
As I grew older, the trips to the mailbox were less and less sweet as the letters from family became scarce. Instead, the box was splitting at its rusted seams with mounds of junk mail. Sifting through that monolith of paper was laborious and time consuming. As junk mail continued to flourish, more and more families, friends and turned to electronic mail for sending letters and junk paper removed actual mail almost completely.
The rise and fall
As email became more prevalent, paper mail diminished, courtesy of Federal action to stop junk mail and increase consumer privacy. The moguls of paper propaganda were not going to stop, and the world met a to a new form of junk mail. SPAM, or unsolicited mail, usually sent in bulk clogs the conduits of cable connections all over the world. The messages come with a disguised sender, a tricky header and a solicitous message. SPAM also became the carrier of viruses, “bots” and malicious software. For cautious parents the Internet became a treacherous place due to the enormity of unsolicited “racy” emails. With the advent of SMS (short message service) or texting, SPAM leaped into the mega-super-highway, sending junk and gunk at sonic speed. Consumers were looking for a solution and none seemed more apropos than returning to the FTC who gave them reprieve from junk mail.
The CAN-SPAM act
Nearly a decade ago, The United States Congress passed an anti-spam law providing severe penalties for businesses that send SPAM email. Since then, compliance for companies has become serious business. One can see why, with penalties of up to $16,000 for a single incident. That may seem like a harsh penalty, but it is important to understand with whom the consumer is dealing.
For a business to remain electronically viable in the information age, smart, specific and poignant electronic communication is essential. If a tire retailer wishes to have what advertisers call “continuity”, it places a newspaper ad, sends a mailer and distributes an email to its database of customers. Marketing companies measure the response rate, the company reviews the ratings and a new campaign begins. For those kinds of businesses, complying with the CAN-SPAM Act is simple. In fact, the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission published a Guide in 2009 titled, “CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business”. (“CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business | BCP Business Center,” n.d.).
The language of the law is broad enough to include any form of electronic communication, thereby including such newcomers as Twitter, Facebook and others. As a part of the act, the BCP Business center included useful tips the center states makes it easy to comply with the law. Among the tips are:
1. Don’t use false or misleading header information
2. Don’t use deceptive subject lines – it must reflect the content of the message
3. Identify the message as an ad
4. Divulge your location (no hiding!)
5. The business must tell the recipient how to opt-out of future mailings
6. Promptly respond to opt-outs
7. Guard those who are electronically communicating on your behalf.
Put up your own perimeter
Sadly, not all businesses comply with the regulations. Actually, the business with which you would work typically complies. The one that does not comply is the “slickster” who is out for you, either trolling for personal data or looking to install a virus or other menace onto your computer.
The information age brings many pitfalls with it, so the age of wisdom must follow. The CAN-SPAM Act only works as well as those who wish to follow it and for those who do not, well, we will have to let those junk emails split the seams of our rusty inboxes.