History repeating: a quick lesson about apples and opting out

Jennifer Nespola Lantz's recent post about Gmail potentially offering political senders a fast pass method to the inbox has gotten me thinking about the spam fight we went through back in the olden times. Before CAN-SPAM, domain reputation and deliverability best practices. 

There was a time back in those bad old days when the marketing industry mega-group Direct Marketing Association tried to convince the world that opt-out was the best path for email marketing. The arguments as to why this absolutely horseshit plan was supposed to be okay varied; free speech, growth of the economy, support for small businesses, whatever. Everybody should be allowed the chance to hit your inbox at least once, they said; and then you could just tell the sender; each sender, individually, to stop emailing you. 

They loved touting two things. First was an "opt-out registry" service called e-MPS. Smart netizens knew that allowing this to proceed would help to normalize the practice of email spam, without actually doing very much to help keep mail away from those who don't want it. A friend of mine was quoted in the NY Times all the way back in 2000 explaining exactly that: "'The e-MPS is a red herring whose sole purpose is to paint a veneer of legitimacy on the practice of spamming,' said Mickey Chandler, president of the Forum for Responsible and Ethical E-Mail, which along with the Spam Recycling Center called for a boycott of the system." So no, we weren't going to go for an opt-out registry.

And secondly, apples. They loved talking about apples. I recall that it came up somewhat often, but internet history can be a bit tricky sometimes, so I'll link you to just one example of it. From 2003, here's Bob Wientzen, then-leader of the Direct Marketing Association, making his point about apples, suggesting that opt-out is good enough: "One bite of the apple is enough."

David Pogue, who interviewed Bob to get that quote back in 2003, went on to say, in response to the one bite at the apple comment: "But the next day, I read an article in an MIT journal that pointed out that there are 24 million small businesses in the United States. If only 1 percent of them send you only one e-mail message each year, you’ll be deleting, and opting out of, 662 little apple bites a day.” (I do believe that David was referring to a quote from John Mozena, cofounder of anti-spam group CAUCE, and I think it's more like 657.5 apple bites a day, but let's not split hairs here.)

Fast forward just under twenty years, and there’s now a lot more than 24 million businesses in the US, small or otherwise, so thank goodness opt-out spam wasn’t deemed OK then and that it's not a commonly acceptable practice now. Yeah, spam happens, just like crime happens -- you may never fully eliminate either of them, but ISPs and mailbox providers are well empowered to block unwanted mail and have made a pretty good show of driving opt-in as an email marketing best practice, more or less a requirement.

My point, though, is this. That bad methodology the DMA proposed years ago is still bad. Applying it today to political mail seems like a bad idea, for similar reasons of scale. There may not be 24 million political races in the US. But how many are there, exactly? And what number do you end up with when you multiply it by the number of candidates? Are they all going to email me? Do I have to opt-out of each one? How many apple bites will I have to clean up after, each day?

You might tell me I’m overreacting, that nobody in Texas is going to email me up here in Chicago about a race in Austin, but how can you be sure? Today, I get people attempting to spam me about city council-level issues in Miami Beach, where I lived once upon a time. I moved away a few years ago and have since struggled to get the mail to stop (and I dutifully report it all as spam). What started out as opt-in got shared and sold and shared some more and it drives me a bit bonkers. I warn you: you might not enjoy that problem scaled up to affect everyone. I'm a geek. I have the power tools and custom filter rules to protect my individual inbox. You might not, especially if you're a Gmail user and Google opens a side door into the Gmail inbox for all of these senders.

Jennifer says she's hoping that Google's playing a smart long game here, hoping to offer up a test that will gather and provide data to show that this type of methodology just won't work. I really, really hope that's the case. Because opt-out paths to the inbox don't scale and don't work, and we knew it 20+ years ago, and the inbox meltdowns it'd cause would be even worse today.

(Side note: One bite at the apple is a common legal term, and I was surprised to learn that the history of the term has nothing to do with the myth of the Garden of Eden.)

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