Online Marketers Propose Spam Controls

In a bid to ward off U.S. government regulation, a coalition of online marketing heavyweights announced plans Monday to propose standards meant to ease consumer concerns about spam and online privacy.

The recently-formed Responsible Electronic Communications Alliance (RECA) is comprised of industry leaders, including DoubleClick, 24/7 Media, ClickAction, Digital Impact, and CMGI’s Yesmail.com. The group said it is harnessing its efforts to adopt universal messaging and e-commerce benchmarks that take into account consumer privacy and the needs of Internet service providers (ISPs).

“There is legitimate concern among Internet users about the e-mail they’re receiving,” said RECA president Christopher Wolf. “RECA is a conscientious attempt by our members to address that concern in a positive way.”

The coalition also said it is developing a “seal of approval” program, which will ensure that companies subscribing to RECA’s standards are in compliance.

“Our ultimate goal is to phase in a set of firm standards on privacy, notice, access, and choice,” explained Wolf. These standards are based on “Fair Information Practices” guidelines issued by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in July.

Standard Bearers

The RECA proposals, according to Wolf, will “put the consumer in charge” by

  • requiring that consumers be informed about all personal information collected, how the data will be used, and who will receive it;
  • alerting consumers to the use of invisible data harvesting tools such as cookies and GIFs;
  • establishing a stringent “opt-in” standard so that only those customers who ask to receive marketing material will be included on mailing lists;
  • providing users with a timely and inexpensive mechanism to e-mail complaints regarding practices;
  • mandating consumers obtain access to their personal data upon request; and
  • providing a simple means for disputing or correcting inaccurate or incomplete information.

An RECA member who violates these standards could face a range of penalties, including warnings, fines, forfeiture of the right to use RECA’s seal, and expulsion.

Wolf said RECA members will move quickly to discuss the coalition’s proposals with others in the online community, including outside analysts, privacy advocates and ISPs.

Also, an FTC spokesman said the agency will review the proposed standards soon, according to a published report.

In July, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce endorsed an industry self-regulation plan to protect privacy developed by the Network Advertising Initiative. That group includes key players 24/7 Media, DoubleClick and AdForce.

Public Scrutiny Intensifies

The creation of RECA comes as public scrutiny of the activities of direct online marketers intensifies. Roundly accused of prying into the surfing and purchasing habits of consumers, Internet marketing companies are growing increasingly jittery that any form of governmental intervention or oversight may stall their industry’s growth.

Additionally, spam has become one of the most controversial methods of delivering direct marketing pitches, as complaints from ISPs, privacy advocates and consumers spike.

Privacy concerns have also become the flash point in debates over whether Web retailers should engage in harvesting customer data. Such organizations as the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Junkbusters are undertaking intense lobbying campaigns to urge the FTC to investigate companies that illegally sell data.

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