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It's not illegal to block mail

My post “We’re going to party like it’s 1996” is still getting a lot of comments from people. Based on the comments, either people aren’t reading or my premise wasn’t clear.
Back in 1996 the first lawsuits were brought against ISPs to stop ISPs from blocking email. These suits were failures. Since that time, other senders have attempted to sue ISPs and lost. Laws have been written protecting the rights of the ISPs to block content they deem to be harmful.
Dela says that he was just attempting to open up a conversation, but I don’t see what he thinks the  conversation is. That ISPs shouldn’t block mail their customers want? Sure, OK. We’re agreed on that. Now, define what mail recipients want. I want what mail I want, not what someone else decides I might want.
Marketers need to get over the belief that they own end users mailboxes and that they have some right to send mail to people. You don’t.
When marketers actually start sending wanted mail, to people who actually subscribe – not just make a purchase, or register online or happen to have an easily discoverable email address – then perhaps marketers will have some standing to claim they are being treated illegally. Until and unless that happens, the ISPs are well within their rights to block mail that their users don’t want.

12 comments

  1. Steve White says

    It’s me again =)
    Sure, I understand and agree with the fundamental right of ISPs to block mail. But where does it stop?
    Things like vi@gr@, child pornography, gambling, phishing, and malware SHOULD be blocked by every means necessary. I agree up to this point.
    For marketers sending promotional newsletters, as long as they abide by the complaint ratios (of course there are other guidelines like bounce rate, unsubscription policy, authentication (dkim, spf), etc) set forth by the respective ISP things should be fine, right? WRONG! It’s no longer that simple and it should be.
    Here’s a little known fact: At the beginning of this year (2010), a certain major ISP switched filters completely. The system went from being reputation based to engagement based. They were one of the first to do this. The entire system was coded (outsourced) to Bangladesh and when the transition was complete, it was FULL of bugs. Then there were a lot of layoffs and the person in charge of the abuse team resigned. One of the biggest changes to the filter was an algorithm largely kept secret from the mailing community at large. Messages from senders were being scanned for what the ISP calls “hunter accounts” – that is to say that email accounts that were not logged into in the past 90 days became “hunter accounts” that would severely impact reputation. All of a sudden I’m seeing major legitimate entities mailing for years getting blocked because the average age of the list is 6-8 months old. These are major branded clients with retail storefronts and 100% double-opt in practices. Very responsive lists with 15-20% opens…amazing 0.09% complaint ratio…BLOCKED! Years of whitelisted reputation … GONE. The client was just told the usual run of the mill “read our best practices”, “go figure it out”, “if you’re not getting in, you’re doing something wrong,” etc etc etc.
    The expectations in this business are not transparent enough. ISPs track variables that they will NEVER publish. Why be so secretive about it? If the “bad players” get the information and they actually COMPLY then isn’t that a win win?

  2. Bill Silverstein says

    Steve White: Some bad players my obey the rules, other bad players will use the information to bypass the filters.
    However, ISPs have the right to block anything that the believe may be offensive and have an immunity to do so.
    Filing a lawsuit against an ISP is so very effective. If you don’t believe me, ask David Linhardt about his lawsuit against Comcast.

  3. Joe Sniderman says

    Steve White:
    I hear ya. Keep in mind that contacting an ISP even as their customer is often an exercise in futility. If you’re not contacting as their customer, why expect it to be any better?
    Anyone can block anything. If ISPs want to start using the prime numbers blocklist, thats their right too.
    Strategically Its probably a bad idea for an ISP to block stuff their customers want – they could risk losing customers that way. I think most ISPs at least try to to block whats unwanted and allow whats wanted.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not agreeing that anyone has a right to delivery, but ISPs could perhaps do a better job of training staff to communicate well, and a better job of filtering/blocking spam accurately. Who couldn’t though?
    I’m biased. I’ve been blocked for “poor engagement.” and “low volume”. ISP in question *tried* to be helpful, by recommending tracking links, web bugs, html, etc.
    Solution: recipient signed up for a secondary email account elsewhere. The ISP later removed the block after said recipient yelled at them, but they didn’t have to. I still get blocked and sometimes whitelisted by that ISP on and off.
    Is it frustrating? Of course. Am I entitled to be unblocked? Of course not. Would it be polite and efficient to be straight up about the cause? Sure. Were they? Heck no. Do they have any obligation to me to be polite or efficient? Absolutely not.
    Of course, if the mail isn’t wanted to begin with, it would be unrealistic to expect anyone to put forth even the slightest effort to receive it.

  4. Steve White says

    I understand your positions.
    With regards to ISP support, in my experience Yahoo has been terrible. They frequently don’t respond to tickets and when they do a lot of times I get a vague, generic, copy/paste answer that’s no help to diagnosing the root cause of the problem. I get the feeling they could care less.
    Hotmail support is fantastic!
    With regards to the Linhardt case, I don’t think he stood a chance. That’s because in my opinion he is one of the bad players that was rightfully blocked. I am talking about legitimate entities getting blocked by oversensitive filters – it’s at an all time high. Business for “deliverability consultants” has never been better.

  5. John Levine says

    Someday it might be interesting to give brain scans to a bunch of e-mail marketers and see if we can identify the cerebral lesion that makes them so utterly unable to understand the key fact that We Don’t Want Their Junk. Maybe I did check a box to agree to valuable offers from someone’s treasured marketing partners a couple of years ago, but you know what, I don’t care whether it’s delivered, because I Don’t Want Their Junk. If my ISP’s filters screwed up and blocked all the marketing mail along with the porn and drug stuff, that wouldn’t bother me at all. Sheesh.

  6. Neil Schwartzman says

    John: you and the overwhelming preponderance of consumers who were surveyed by MAAWG determine marketing email to be, at best, unimportant. Person to person, invoices and order confirmations and so on were deemed important and very important. Problem is, marketers regard every email undelivered as ‘lost revenue’, wrong-headedly. Look further up this comment thread: success is measured as opens. I wonder how many of those were ‘open and delete’.

  7. The Proverbial Barry says

    these marketers job is to deliver the mail and they do not care about anybody else not recipients not isps and clearly not the law unless they can twist it to their favor
    in otherwords they are acting just like spammers except maybe they dont use botnets yet

  8. Ken Magill says

    Way to keep it civil and mature there, Barry.

  9. Al says

    My experience with Yahoo has been far from terrible. I wonder what’s different in what my clients are doing vs what Steve White’s clients are doing? I have no insight into his mail streams, so I don’t mean to imply anything, but when somebody says “YAHOO SUCKS!” in this context, it just doesn’t make sense to me.

  10. Neil Schwartzman says

    More than half of British consumers regard email marketing and spam as the same thing, and treat it the same way: http://www.kognitio.com/news/latest/index.php

  11. Joe Sniderman says

    Neil Schwartzman:
    Those stats are not surprising. Only part I don’t get is why any organization would devote so many resources to an activity that annoys more than half of its existing or potential (British at least) customer base.
    Maybe the industry as a whole sucks, and any minor intermittent suck-itude on an ISPs end is just a byproduct of the greater suck-itude on the part of the email marketing industry as a whole.

  12. Trout says

    Steve: “Here’s a little known fact: At the beginning of this year (2010), a certain major ISP switched filters completely.”
    …are you talking about AOL? Because if you are, you are completely and totally wrong.

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