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December 2011The monthly newsletter by Felgall Pty Ltd

My Word

Unwanted Emails

I find it rather amazing that the laws of so many countries still do nothing toward even trying to prevent the huge volume of unwanted emails clogging the email system and even more so that some countries actually have laws that promote it. It is now quite a few years since Australia (where I am) first introduced laws in this area which might have actually been effective were all other countries of the world to simply introduce equivalent laws in their country.

The Australian law basically defines any email that is sent to someone where a prior relationship of some sort doesn't exist is 'spam'. There are a number of ways in which such a prior relationship might exist such as the person having bought something from you in the past or where they have actually requested to be on your mailing list. Even the request to be placed on your mailing list needs to be confirmed in order to comply with the law since if a third party requests for them to be on your mailing list you still don't have the relationship with them that entitles you to send them emails. You can get away with sending them one email in this situation in order to ask them to confirm that it was them who requested to be added to your mailing list. Only once they confirm are you then permitted by law to send them further emails. This is generally referred to as a double opt in system since a person must first opt in to receive emails and then confirm that it actually was them who opted in prior to their receiving a second and subsequent emails. In this way you know that they actually want to receive the emails.

Of course if a prior relationship exists such as their having bought something from you (if you are a shop) or they are already a member (if you are a club) then you don't need to get them to go through the double opt in process in order to be able to email them as a relationship already exists. Of course the possibility exists that in this instance (or even after someone goes through the double opt in process) that someone may decide that they no longer want to receive emails from you and so each email must also give them the opportunity to opt out from receiving further emails.

Note how this is structured. The one email you send them when you are not sure if a relationship exists requires that they take action to confirm the relationship and if they don't then no further emails are sent to them. Only those with whom there is an established relationship get the emails with the information you want to send them and each of those gives them the opportunity to end the relationship. This fits with the general rule that you should try to avoid opening any email that you didn't actually request to receive and that if you do happen to open one that you most definitely should NOT click on any links within the email. So if a third party signs you up then the confirmation email is the only one you receive and as you never requested it you ignore it and that confirms to the sender that it wasn't you who signed up.

The only reason that this doesn't work is that it can only be legally enforced for emails originating in Australia. For all emails originating outside Australia there is no easy way to enforce that only wanted emails are being sent.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the USA where their laws are set up to actively promote the sending of unwanted emails. Their laws don't require a double opt in to be on the list, they require an opt out to not be on the list. As I said earlier - you should try to avoid opening emails that you didn't ask to receive and should NEVER EVER click a link in one. So what this means is that the spammers can send as much unwanted email as they like under US law as all it requires is that they provide a link in their email that will confirm to them that your email address exists and that you not only open unrequested emails but you are also stupid enough to click on links in them. If you do click on the link to opt out from receiving emails from that email address they can comply with the US law by removing you from that mailing list. As they now have a confirmation that your email address really exists and that you do open unrequested emails they can now add you to 100,000 other lists that have no connection to the first list and provided that the emails sent on those lists also have a link to allow opting out from that list they can then legitimately send you lots more spam in the knowledge that you will actually open at least some of it.

The problem with an opt out system in this situation is that the spammers are often simply generating all the variations of email addresses they can think of. 99.999% of the addresses they are trying to send to don't exist and so they are really wasting their time sending to those addresses. Any address that they can actually confirm as existing (by placing a link to an invisible image in the email and then hoping that someone who hasn't disabled linked images in their email program will open the email and so confirm that their email address exists by requesting to download the image - or worse by actually clicking on a link in the email) are that much more valuable to them as they know that there is a real person who not only received the email, they also opened it. An opt out system used this way is of benefit to the spammer as it helps them to extract the real email addresses from the ones that are wasting their time.

If all countries were to adopt the Australian system then it would at least be made illegal to send spam and some sort of action could then take place to attempt to do something about it. While it is still legal to send these emails from some countries and particularly while some countries have laws to make the spammers job easier, no effective action can be taken to reduce the amount of unwanted email being sent.

When Ray Tomlinson invented email back in late 1971 (over 40 years ago now), he would never have imagined how much abuse that the system would subsequently see. Perhaps the question to ask now is whether email will survive to see its 50th birthday or whether the spam will become so bad that people simply stop using it.

On Site

Two more book reviews this month (which took up a fair bit of my time as I actually read the books before I can write the review). Also not as many scripts as I'd intended - since they actually take time to code and test and I am only going to make new versions available when they are an actual improvement on prior versions. I should have time to create a few new scripts in the next month or so - particularly now that I have finished setting up all the examples I wanted to have to start my new JavaScript site at with apart from the Ajax examples - which will also hopefully get written soon.

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