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White House sending spam?

There has been some press about political spam recently. People are receiving email from the White House that they have not opted into. At a recent press conference a reporter challenged the press secretary to defend the practice.
Chris Wheeler over at Bronto blog points out that CAN SPAM doesn’t apply as this is political mail, and CAN SPAM only covers commercial email. He also notes that most of the mail came from “forward to a friend” links which the sender has little to no control over.
Gawker has a post up “Everything you need to know about Obama’s Spam-Gate.”
There are a lot of issues here. Chris asks a number of questions on his blog, that I encourage people to think about.

  1. Do you think it’s fair that political emails are exempt from CAN-SPAM?
  2. Should “Tell a Friend” be an option on a heated topic such as this that will inevitably land in some folks’ inboxes and peeve them?
  3. Is it enough for the White House to say it only sent to recipients who opted in at the site or should they provide further evidence of this position?
  4. Do you believe politicians, including but not limited to those in the White House, engage in using rented lists?

I have some other thoughts on the subject. Mostly centered around how difficult the complainers are making it for the White House to investigate this.
Refusing to turn over email addresses to abuse desks or senders is one of the things that can be a good idea or may not be a good idea. But if you don’t turn over the email address where you received spam, then you have to accept the fact that the sender may not be able to answer the question “Why did I get this mail?” (aka, why are you spamming me!?!?!).
It may be that the White House is buying lists and spamming. It’s just as likely that there are other explanations. People politically involved online do sometimes put email addresses of people they disagree with in signup forms, and then all of it sudden it looks like The Other Side is spamming. It could be a forward to a friend process where individuals are forwarding mails to friends (and enemies!). It could be any number of things.
The only way the truth is going to be known is if people who received the mail provide full copies of the mail, including headers, and if the White House ESP folks have the ability to audit the source of the addresses. Without both of those things, it can be impossible to determine why a particular recipient received spam.

4 comments

  1. John Caldwell says

    Nobody seems to be talking about the possiblitiy that email addresses collected under the White House’s “turn in your friends for sending ‘fishy’ ‘health care’ emails” project could be being harvested and then mailed to.
    If that’s the case, I could understand why some people receiving the email might not want to share their email address with those same people….

  2. Jay Levitt says

    I don’t think it’s “fair” that CAN-SPAM exempts political e-mails, but I do think it’s necessary. I recall a lot of discussion on this in the ’90s, when most of the state anti-spam bills were written, and if you don’t exempt political speech then the law itself gets struck down in court, since it places unconstitutional restrictions on political speech.
    (IANAL, but I swayed one in DC.)

  3. Chris Wheeler says

    Thanks for the reference, Laura.
    This issue received so much press that the White House provided an official response and Fox news did an interview with Major (the reporter who surfaced the issue) this morning. I’ve updated my original blog post to contain links to these.
    http://blog.bronto.com/2009/08/14/white-house-email-acquisition-controversy/
    Of significant interest, the WH says:
    ““The White House e-mail list is made up of e-mail addresses obtained solely through the White House website. The White House doesn’t purchase, upload or merge from any other list. … [A]ll e-mails come from the White House website
    as we have no interest in emailing anyone who does not want to receive an email.
    “If an individual received the e-mail because someone else or a group signed them up or forwarded the email, we hope they were not too inconvenienced. Further, we suggest that they unsubscribe from the list by clicking the link at the bottom of the e-mail or tell whomever forwarded it to them not to forward such information anymore.”
    The also say they’ll crack down on opt-in policies. Double opt-in perhaps? I wonder if this is just rhetoric or if the WH will actually do anything to beef up the process. If TAF is too risky, don’t add the feature – let friends forward their copy. And, with information being publicized about how they’ve previously acquired email addresses from online petitions, that seems to be in conflict with them getting email addresses by recipients directly opting in at whitehouse.gov.

  4. Email as a PR problem at Word to the Wise says

    […] well as they might in other media. This means that sometimes email campaigns go wrong in a way that drives a national news story about how you are a […]

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