Can the Spam!

The Online Activist: Part Two


Got something important to say? A simple mouse click lets you reach thousands of people almost instantaneously. E-mail can be a hugely powerful tool for activists, and even Internet rookies can use it effectively on a global scale. But is it outreach — or is it spam?

As Internet use has skyrocketed, so have complaints about unsolicited e-mail, also called “junk e-mail” or “spam.” No one wants their e-mailbox clogged with idiotic ads for businesses in faraway states, or come-ons to join the latest get-rich-quick scheme. And while most of the complaints are about exactly this kind of cheesy commercial e-mail, unwelcome political e-mail can also spark an angry flame.

Spam is now such a hot-button topic among Internet users that three separate anti-spam bills have been introduced in Congress, and at least one of them — S. 875 by Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) — could have profound effects on how activists conduct outreach in cyberspace. More on that in a minute; in the meantime, check out these helpful tips for avoiding the sins of the spammer:

** Never send unsolicited mass e-mailings. If you want to tell a large number of people about an issue, send your message to e-mail discussion lists and Usenet newsgroups that focus on the topic of your message. Everyone hates blanket e-mail — it’s the purest form of spam.

** Never subscribe people to e-mail lists without their permission. You can create your own e-mail distribution list by sending a message to appropriate discussion lists and newsgroups, announcing your list and inviting people to subscribe. Be ruthlessly specific about the topic, the frequency of posts, and how the list will operate.

** Never put multiple e-mail addresses in the “to” or “cc” field when sending to a large number of people. Put your own e-mail address in the “to” field and use the “bcc” (blind copy) field for all the other addresses — or else readers will have to scroll through screenfuls of address gibberish to find your message.

** Never post action alerts to e-mail discussion lists or Usenet groups on unrelated issues. If your action alert is about clean air, you’re likely to get flamed if you send it to a discussion list focused on free speech.

** Never leave the subject line blank. This is a sure way to annoy people.

** Always identify yourself. Give complete contact information in e-mail alerts: phone, address, fax, e-mail, and URL if you have a Web site. Everyone is faceless in cyberspace. You’ll have far more credibility — and may get better results — if you clearly identify yourself, your organization, and your cause.

Here are a few more general tips for making your e-mail outreach effective.

** Always provide contact information for any decision-makers you want people to reach. Provide the telephone, fax, and postal address. You can also throw in the e-mail address, but remember to warn your recipients: Few decision-makers pay attention to e-mail from constituents. If your organization has a Web site with a fax server, include the URL for the fax server so your recipients can send faxes; the newer e-mail software recognizes URLs and enables the reader to click directly onto the site.

** Always send yourself a test message before sending out alerts. Check for correct format, spelling, and especially contact information and URLs, so you don’t have to annoy recipients by sending them embarrassing corrections.

** Keep the text short and focused. You’re much more likely to motivate people to action if you get right to the point.

** Write a subject line that’s compelling or provocative. This is the first thing the recipient will see. The more compelling you make it, the more likely it is that your message will be read — and acted upon.

Resources for Keeping up to Date on the Spam Debate

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Web site has detailed information about spam, including links to the bills in Congress, and its EPIC Alert electronic newsletter provides updates on the spam legislation and other computer privacy issues. For readers who don’t mind a libertarian perspective, the Voters Telecommunications Watch (VTW) publishes the electronic newsletter Junk Email News!, with back issues archived on the Web.

EPIC’s analysis indicates bills H.R. 1748 by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and S. 771 by Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) could face Constitutional challenges on the grounds that they interfere with the sender’s First Amendment right to free speech — but they probably will not interfere with activist work because they specifically target commercial spam. Torricelli’s bill, on the other hand, would create a penalty of up to $5,000 for sending unsolicited e-mail to any recipient who has requested that it cease, but makes no distinction about content. This penalty conceivably could apply to activists sending e-mail bulletins or action alerts, with an extremely chilling effect on e-mail outreach.

Audrie Krause is the founder and executive director of NetAction, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public, policy makers, and the media about technology-based social and political issues.