Laying down the law on bulk e-mail

Have you ever signed up for something online and then started getting e-mails from that company – special offers, newsletters, and the like? That’s bulk e-mail. The software company I work for offers its customers a bulk e-mail service, and so we send lots of promotional e-mails to our customers’ customers. I’m usually reluctant to admit that because the reaction I usually get runs along the lines of, “So your company is responsible for all the spam I get.” I usually respond that it’s true only if one of our customers isn’t following good bulk e-mail practices:

  • You should receive promotional e-mails only when you explicitly choose to receive them. Giving your e-mail address to a company as part of ordering from them doesn’t qualify. You should also have to check a box next to text saying something like, “Please send me promotional e-mails.”
  • It should be very easy to stop receiving promotional e-mails. At the bottom of a promotional e-mail, usually in tiny type, you should find a line that says something like, “Click here to unsubscribe.” Clicking that link should open a Web page were you can tell the company to stop.

You’d think that companies wouldn’t care whether you signed up or can unsubscribe, but a couple things have encouraged them to build and maintain a good reputation.

  • The CAN-SPAM act of 2003 insists on certain good behavior. This law lets companies send unsolicited promotional e-mail only if it follows certain rules, one of which is to allow the recipient to unsubscribe. Failure to follow the rules can lead to legal action.
  • The big e-mail providers punish senders who don’t play nice. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, and so on, watch bulk e-mail like a hawk because it costs them big money in bandwidth and storage. You wouldn’t believe all the rules these providers have in place to prevent unwanted e-mail from reaching you. They also give you a surprisingly powerful tool in that little Spam button that appears on each e-mail. Every time you click it, your e-mail provider takes notice. Spam a sender a couple times, and those messages go to your spam folder instead of your inbox. If lots of people click Spam on a sender’s messages, the e-mail provider will blacklist the sender’s Internet address and not accept e-mail from them anymore.

All of this encourages companies to send you only e-mails you want to receive. That doesn’t mean, however, that companies still don’t occasionally do stinky things.

Some time ago, I wanted to print some photos. So I uploaded the files to and chose to pick them up at my nearby Walgreens. I immediately started getting one or two promotional e-mails from them every day. I certainly didn’t check a box asking for those e-mails. I’m betting they buried that checkbox in tiny type someplace I would be sure not to notice it, and pre-checked the box for me. How helpful of them. But at least Walgreens did include an unsubscribe link in every e-mail. I clicked it and that was that, at least for a while. Four months later, not having used at all, I started getting e-mails again. I unsubscribed again, and it appears to have stuck this time.

Many years ago I made business trips to Louisville all the time. I rented cars from Hertz for all of those trips, and soon they enrolled me in their #1 Club Gold loyalty program. Of course I got promotional e-mails from them, but as a frequent customer they were very useful to me. After those business trips ended, I unsubscribed. When I wrecked my car a couple years ago while away on vacation, I rented from Hertz so I could get home. I didn’t ask for it, but they started sending me #1 Club Gold e-mails again. When I tried to unsubscribe, Hertz wanted me to type in my account number. I threw away my #1 Club Gold card years ago. Hertz gave me a link that would let me retrieve my account number, but I had to type in my driver’s license number to get it! And then it took them two days to e-mail me my account number. I went back to unsubscribe, but their unsubscribe form was crammed full of confusing options. It took me five tries to check the right boxes for the form to go through without returning an error. And then it didn’t work – I continued to get Hertz e-mails! So I started clicking the Spam button on them, and now Gmail delivers those messages to my spam folder so I never have to see them.

So to Hertz, Walgreens, and everybody else out there who sends me bulk e-mail, I am laying down the law:

  • Subscribing. If you absolutely must try to sign me up for your e-mails when I first use your service, please make the opt-out checkbox baseball-bat-to-the-forehead obvious. If you don’t and I miss it, I’m going to assume you signed me up without my permission, and I will click the Spam button on all of your e-mails.
  • Unsubscribing. When I click your Unsubscribe link, it had better do nothing but tell me I’ve just unsubscribed. Don’t show me a page full of checkboxes and make figure out which one means “send me no more e-mail period.” And good heavens, don’t make me look up my account number. Finally, don’t try to keep selling me on receiving e-mails from you – unless you want to send me free gold bars once a week, nothing you say will foil my nefarious unsubscribe plans. In short, if unsubscribing isn’t dead nuts simple, I will just click Spam on all of your e-mails.

Harrumph. That is all.

Thanks to Erika, who is Redhead Writing, for inspiring this screed. Read hers on the same topic here.

Stories Told

Aging Netizen

It occurred to me today that I’ve been using e-mail for almost a quarter century. That’s more than half my life.

The lowly VT100

I first e-mailed at Rose-Hulman in 1985 on a VAX, using a VT100 terminal. My first e-mail was probably a request to an operator (what we now call a system administrator), but soon my friends and I all figured out that we could efficiently contact each other this way, seeing as all of us passed through the Computing Center several times a day. Yes, we had to go to a central location to read and write our e-mails. And there was no e-mail to computers other than the VAX; it wasn’t networked with anything. The very idea!

In 1989, a friend introduced me to Terre Haute’s computer bulletin board scene. A BBS was a computer that had software on it that served up e-mail, message forums, file shares, games, and chat rooms. You dialed into it with your modem; if somebody else was online, you got a busy signal and had to wait. There were many different BBS software platforms available, but most of the BBSes in Terre Haute used WWIV, which ran on DOS.

WWIV’s main menu

Terre Haute’s BBS community was large and active, and we had a lot of fun together online. We even started meeting in person. At first our gatherings were tentative and informal, but as we gelled we started having parties, summertime cookouts, and even a couple late-fall hog roasts. Those of us old enough to imbibe began meeting at a different local bar each week for a few brews. We called ourselves the Tuesday Night Drinking Society, and we had one rule: We never met on Tuesday.

At about the same time, the software company I worked for got connected to the Internet backbone (via a token-ring local network; remember those?). I’ve had more e-mail addresses than I can remember, but I’ll never forget my first one: (I worked for Applied Computing Devices, Inc., hence acd4 was our mail server’s name.) The first Internet e-mail I sent was to a friend who worked out in Silicon Valley, 2,000 miles away. I was amazed that I could write him a note and he could respond in seconds! We got no work done that afternoon as we e-mailed back and forth. It seems so commonplace today, but outside elite academic and scientific circles (which had had the Internet since the 1970s) this was as groundbreaking at the time as it was for a 1920s farmer to receive his first long-distance telephone call.

But the Internet was still all text-based. I had figured out how to make my beloved Emacs text editor handle e-mail and USENET feeds; I’m pretty sure I used gnus. USENET is a worldwide forum on any topic you can imagine. Oh my goodness, the time I sunk into discussions on USENET. You can still find many of those discussions thanks to Google Groups’ archive. Here’s the oldest one of my posts that I can find, from 1992, plus a 1994 post from a brief trip along US 40 in Ohio (from before my inner roadgeek was awakened). Anyway, Emacs and gnus are still around, but I haven’t used UNIX in 15 years; I have long since come to the dark side of Windows.

NCSA Mosaic logo

That happened in 1994 when I moved to Indianapolis and became an editor for the company that used to publish the …For Dummies books. That’s where I became aware of the World Wide Web, which had been born in about 1990 but didn’t really get anywhere until about 1993 when the NCSA Mosaic browser was born. I downloaded version 0.9 to my computers at work and at home and spent happy hours surfing the nascent Web. It’s hard to imagine now how small the Web was then – it was possible in 1994 to visit every page added to the Web each day. It’s also hard to imagine now a Web that was primarily static text with an occasional GIF or JPEG image thrown in.

This was the Web in 1994, kiddies

In the Web’s early days, you wrote your HTML by hand in a text editor. One of my fellow editors fought for about a year, but finally convinced the higher-ups that we needed to publish a how-to guide that demystified writing Web pages. When it came off the press in 1995, I got a copy and started building my first personal Web page. My dialup Internet account came with modest Web hosting, so I published it there.

That page evolved into my current Web presence at I no longer code my HTML by hand; I use Microsoft FrontPage. As the Internet has become a fixture in modern life, the amount of geekery I’ve been willing to employ in using it has dropped to almost zero, limited entirely to occasional HTML tweaking of my blog or personal site. I’ve grown lazy! I can’t imagine firing up Emacs to check my messages, using its arcane keyboard commands to get around, reading everything in monospaced text. I was willing to do that when the Internet was interesting as a technical toy. But today, what the Internet delivers is interesting and valuable, and I want the easiest and fastest way to access it. I hardly watch TV anymore, but I spend lots of time on YouTube and Hulu. At Christmastime, I set up Pandora to play endless holiday songs for my family. I keep up with my sons’ progress in school via an ANGEL Learning implementation (which, by the way, several of my colleagues helped build). When I need to know pretty much anything, I ask Google. And, of course, I still have discussions in forums and compulsively check my e-mail. The oldest applications of all this technology remain, I think, the best.

Read about how taking a speech class in high school launched me on my geek-ridden career.