Do Not Contact Me, Ever

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

The legislative rush to curb telemarketing and spam makes it hard to sell electronically. Even if you keep your data clean, no silver bullet prevents lawsuits.

It's hunting season on marketers, thanks to "Do Not Call" regulation and anti-spam legislation, and companies such as Publishers Clearing House are in the line of fire.

The 50-year-old marketer of magazine subscriptions believes it has taken every conceivable precaution to protect customers' privacy. Publishers Clearing House refuses to buy or sell customers' e-mail addresses, sends no information to those who haven't asked for it, and addresses each customer complaint. It keeps precise track of when it has the right to e-mail each customer and how many attempts have been made to remove a name from a mailing list. It even keeps records of all communications.

Too bad. "We're confident that we're doing the right thing. And we're also sure we're going to end up in the courts," says Rory Cumming, vice president and general manager of pch.com, Publishers Clearing House's Web site.

All over the world, companies are bracing for the possibility that angry customers—weary of answering phone calls from strange salespeople during their dinner hours and opening e-mail boxes filled with pornography—will test the limits of their right to privacy by filing a lawsuit. The customers may even have the force of law on their side.

In September, California Gov. Gray Davis signed the nation's toughest statewide legislation to date regulating the sending of electronic spam. The law, which Long Island, N.Y.-based Publishers Clearing House is watching carefully, gives residents the right to sue anybody that sends them unsolicited commercial e-mail and establishes fines of $1,000 per message, or as much as $1 million. It is scheduled to take effect January 1.

On Oct. 22, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that contains a provision sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), calling for a national Do Not Spam registry. Like the recently established Do Not Call registry limiting phone marketers' calls, this database would severely limit the use of e-mail for selling services or goods.

Indeed, more than 50 million people have signed up for the national Do Not Call registry, which the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission began enforcing jointly in October despite several court challenges. So far, these agencies have received more than 15,000 complaints of violations, which if true will cost the perpetrators $11,000 each. There are also 42 sets of state Do Not Call rules, which are allowed to be stricter than the federal rules.

This article was originally published on 2003-11-01
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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