Today I Hate: the CAN-SPAM act of 2003

Growing up is just learning all the terrible laws you have to abide by. The annoying piece of paper I found today comes from the process of making this website: the CAN-SPAM act of 2003.

The law sets requirements for commercial email, and I’m fine with that being regulated generally speaking. No one wants unsolicited porn emailed to them (well, at least this guy doesn’t). The W. Bush-signed legislation was aimed at reducing spam and fraudulent emails.

There’s two troubles with the law. The first is–has it worked? I don’t know about you, but I feel like I get nearly infinite spam emails. The law doesn’t ban unsolicited emails, and it doesn’t ban fraudulent or spam emails of any kind, but just of a commercial variety. I mean, the name of the law supposed to stop people from spamming is literally called “can spam.” I suppose it’s provisions in that case are better than nothing; but it clearly doesn’t go far enough in controlling email spam, while simultaneously (as often happens with federal law) is too controlling on non-spam and legitimate practices, as we shall see.

That’s the second problem: it is too controlling in regulating small time or freelance workers like me. I discovered this law trying to set up an email subscription/newsletter for this website. I figured that way people who want to be notified when I write something can be, right in the comfort of their own email boxes. Trouble is emails aimed at promotion, even for something as minor as a very-part-time, barely-paid freelance writer, are classified as “commercial” emails and thus fall under the FTC’s CAN-SPAM rules.

All well and good, because no one wants to be spammed by freelancers either. Except for this bombshell: the act requires a valid, physical postal address for the business to be displayed at the bottom of every email sent. Fines for failing to do this can amount to tens of thousands of dollars for EACH email without the address.

Not a problem for brick-and-mortar businesses. Heck, they’d probably want to include their location in marketing emails anyway.

But for the (idk, millions?) of gig workers and freelancers, they’re screwed. Most just work out of their family home. Many live on the road or are transient, or at least have no reliably permanent address. And most are scraping by, using their freelancing as a supplemental income or even just trying to get started.

So they’re stuck with three terrible choices if they want to comply with the law:

  1. Give your home address to the entire internet.
  2. Buy an alternative address, like a PO Box.
  3. Don’t do any email marketing.

Number 1 is not an option for I hope obvious reasons. At best it’ll get scraped by bots and you’ll suddenly get lots of physical spam, either mailings or door-to-door salesmen. At worst, you’ll get robbed and beaten to death in front of your family. Either way, a pretty high cost to pay for what should be a minimally invasive task (sending an email).

Number 2 is the best option, but only if you’re already established. PO Boxes aren’t cheap anymore, and since you have to receive mail at the location, you’re limited to whatever is available near you. At best Pittsburgh might have them for $100 a year, which isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things. But is a ton to spend solely on a hobby career that won’t make much anyway.

Number 3 is what I’m ultimately doing at the moment. I figure my possible subscribers list would be so small that no amount of money is justifiable just to get an email newsletter out for now. But this is also a terrible option specifically for digital and freelance at-home workers. They have no other way to market but digital schemes, and email lists are a prime way to get the word out there. Yet, thanks to the law, they are precisely the people least likely to find such marketing feasible.

There’s my complaint for the day: the CAN-SPAM act of 2003. Maybe doing it’s job in some ways (considering I haven’t gotten any pornography emailed to me in a while), but in need of a serious update for the modern gig and freelance digital economy.

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