Report that political spam! Don't just hit delete.

Do you receive political spam? Political spam happens in the US, seemingly regardless of party, but it is not something universally engaged in, nor do I think that it is something broadly welcomed, even if some tolerate it.

My own personal experience is varied. Back in my Miami Beach days, I dared to sign up for local government LISTSERVs to get warnings about hurricanes (when should we leave town?) and notifications of upcoming events in the area where I lived (where's the live jazz?). A number of unscrupulous folks seem to have obtained my email address from those signups via FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and then added me to lists for their various candidacies. I vigorously reported all of those unsolicited messages, knowing that most best practice-abiding email sending platforms do not intend to allow lists to be built in this way, and specific mail stopped. Sometimes an overzealous candidate for the Miami Beach city council might have lost their Mailchimp account as a result. Oh, well. They got spanked. Hopefully they learned from it.

A few years ago, I moved back to Chicago. The mail (Miami targeted) continued, but after a year or so of reporting it all and making sure it's clear that I do not want or accept or put up with unsolicited mail regarding local political drama a thousand miles away, it eventually dried up.

But what of Chicago? It's silly season here in Chicago, with a city-wide election coming up shortly. Besides electing (or re-electing) our mayor, we get to choose who should be the aldermanic representative for our ward. And I saw my first Chicago-specific municipal election spam up close. One of the aldermanic candidates appears to have purchased a list, aiming to reach people in our zip code. Well, success, sort of. The local Facebook group has a number of complaints from people who are upset that she started emailing them out of the blue. She appears to have sent unsolicited mail to my wife, so we reported it to the email send platform in question, Constant Contact. I've known folks there for years, and I know they'll investigate spam allegations fairly and firmly.

When I brought up the spam on Facebook myself, there were a few folks quick to say "Just Hit Delete," which is a refrain I'm used to hearing, going back all the way to when I helped developed the first set of spam filters I implemented for my then-employer, back in 1997/1998. At the time, few people really knew what spam was (and not everybody had email), so unless you were getting the gross porn spam that was (unfortunately) what was often spewed back then, you might not have gotten what the big deal was. But fast forward to 2023, and anybody with some level of intellect (or knowledge of the email industry, tech in general, or who can read) generally understands that spam is a big problem, because if left unchecked, it wrecks whatever ecosystem(s) it flows through.

Back in the day, the insult JHD was usually accompanied by "why do you care so much, go save the rain forests or something." So to hear JHD in the context of local civic engagement is strange, isn't it? I find it at odds with the whole concept of civic engagement. Do you want to make the world a better place? Do something about it. Don't just ignore the problem. Don't "Just Hit Delete."

In that Facebook discussion, a couple people mentioned that political senders are exempt from CAN-SPAM. Which is ... sort of accurate? But also inaccurate, and misses important nuances of the law.

It is indeed true that CAN-SPAM doesn't directly regulate political speech. It's meant to regulate commercial speech -- specifically, commercial speech primarily transmitted via unsolicited email. While the law doesn't prohibit unsolicited emails, political or otherwise, it bars falsity in headers, requires respecting unsubscribe requests, and has a few other bits and bobs. It's a low bar to meet from a sender's perspective. One of the best bits, in my opinion, though, is that it basically allows internet service providers to set their own standards as far as what mail they can allow or decline to transmit. Section 8 of the law is key. It's what allows mailbox providers to block spammers, including political spammers.

In other words, while political spam is "allowed" under CAN-SPAM, the law does not bar mailbox providers from blocking spam, and it effectively says as much. And most mailbox providers, internet service providers, and email sending platforms prohibit unsolicited messages, making no exception for political messages.

Even if spam were broadly accepted, would it be wise? It sure seems risky in this context.

When you're purchasing a list, you don't know with any certainty that you're reaching the people you hope to reach. Purchased list targeting is imperfect, and with politics as polarized as they are today, there's a good chance that some of the people on your purchased list will absolutely HATE your message. How is that good campaigning? I question it as a sustainable methodology, because you're likely to attract high spam complaints and feedback loop reports, greatly increasing the chances of seeing your email sending platform get shut down.

Can you imagine intentionally sending a marketing or political advocacy message out to people knowing that there's a good chance that you'll anger them so much that they're going to go to Facebook and literally say hey, this sucks, why are you doing this, stop it? I guess if you're that whole "any press is good press" kind of person, but it sure doesn't seem like a winning strategy to me.

So anyway, report that spam! There's a good chance your report actually matters both to your own email service and to the email platform that was used to send the mail. And if you find it too hard to figure out where to send a manually composed spam report to, at least use that "report spam" button in your webmail provider's user interface. It helps make the world a better place.

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