Understanding CAN-SPAM

Signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 16, 2003, the CAN-SPAM Act or “CAN-SPAM” established the United States’ first national standards for the sending of commercial e-mail. Under the act, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was given the responsibility to enforce its provisions.

What is the purpose of CAN-SPAM?

As private citizens, we’re all familiar with what it feels like to get unwanted email. It can be frustrating and annoying. The CAN-SPAM act gives recipients the legal right to require businesses to stop sending email to them. CAN-SPAM also plays a role in protecting a sender’s reputation by weeding out those who are reputable and abide by the law and those who don’t. SPAM has costly financial implications as well. The FTC uses CAN-SPAN to combat that, penalizing offenders with fines up to $16,000 for each separate email.

What are the rules for CAN-SPAM?

The basic tenets of the Act are:

  • The use of accurate header information to correctly identify the origins of the message.
  • The use of subject lines that reflect message content.
  • The clear identification of a commercial message as an advertisement.
  • The inclusion of a valid physical postal address.
  • The inclusion of opt-out measures.
  • Prompt and effective action on opt-out requests within 10 business days which in no way inconveniences the recipient.
  • The sender assumes responsibility for the message even if a third party vendor is contracted to execute the service.

Does CAN-SPAN apply to bulk email only?

Though bulk email is often thought of as an obvious hideout for wannabe spammers, it’s not the only kind of email sending practice CAN-SPAM covers. All commercial electronic messages used for the promotion or advertisement of any product, service or website content are covered by the CAN-SPAM Act. But CAN-SPAM doesn’t apply to every electronic message a company sends. “Transactional” or “relationship” messages are free from CAN-SPAM regulations. Some commercial messages, however, can contain a mix of promotional, transactional and/or relationship messages. And that’s where things get a little sticky. Determining whether a message is in fact promotional or not can come down to how it is reasonably interpreted. And this interpretation isn’t just based on the words used in a commercial email. It includes where on the page content in question is located, what kind of graphics are used, even font size. The FTC does a good job of explaining these gray areas and answering other CAN-SPAM compliance FAQs with this brief guide.

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