Industry self-policing group announces online marketing guidelines

In an effort to keep the government’s hands off the e-mail marketing industry, a self-policing group’s membership — made up of several top industry players — Monday announced a series of guidelines based on FTC guidelines.

In July, the FTC approved a series of industry guidelines emphasizing, among other things, opt-out as “best practice” for online advertising. The FTC’s guidelines were based on recommendations from the Network Advertising Initiative, another industry group comprised of ad networks including DoubleClick, 24/7 Media, CMGI‘s ad network and technology company Engage, CMGI ad server AdForce.

At the time of their adoption, privacy advocates attacked the regulations’ guidelines as being pro-industry for requiring “opt-out” rather that “opt-in” to profiling and marketing e-mail.

The rules announced Monday by the Responsible Electronic Communication Alliance, which address e-mail marketing rather than banner advertising, specify “opt-in” as standard practice.

Although the RECA stopped short of recommending a tough practice like double opt-in, as some other industry groups have recommended, Wolf defended his group’s guidelines as “baseline practice” and said actual procedures should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

“No one rule really fits all. The standards have to be tailored to specific circumstances,” Wolf said. “The more remote the relationship with consumers, the more notification is necessary. The closer the relationship with consumers, the less notification is necessary. It’s on a sliding scale.”

“We haven’t refined that scale as much as it will be refined, but [Monday’s guidelines are] the framework. But clearly the baseline is opt-in.”

For the most part, RECA proposals build and expand on FTC regulations.

With regard to opt-in rules, the RECA proposal states that if a marketing company receives a user’s e-mail address from another user, the company may send that user one e-mail that invites the user to subscribe, which must indicate the e-mail address of the referrer.

Single opt-in is recommended practice except cases “where a company and user already have a business relationship” or “when significant inaccuracies may be likely,” which allows members and clients to use a confirmed opt-in system.

Additionally, language telling e-mail recipients how to register complaints and unsubscribe must be on all messages — including the confirmation, more explicit than the FTC’s rules require.

As with the FTC rules, the proposals also state that customers should have access upon request to their personal information, as well as a simple means for contesting and correcting inaccurate or incomplete information.

Wolf and representatives from the RECA said they are developing a seal of approval program to identify companies that subscribe to the group’s standards.

“Our ultimate goal is to phase in a set of firm standards on privacy, notice, access and choice,” he added.

Members of the RECA found to have violated its guidelines face fines, censure and loss of the right to use its seal.

For these reasons, Wolf said the model of industry-recommended, government-approved guidelines works better for the industry than rules mandated by the government alone.

“Industry self-regulation is much better than government regulation,” Wolf said. “We hope we can get the FTC’s endorsement of what we’re doing.”

RECA members include ad networks DoubleClick, 24/7 Media and Phase2 Media.

Conspicuously absent is Engage, a sister company of which opt-in e-mail provider yesmail is a member. Engage representatives did not comment by press time.

Also represented on the group are the American List Council and marketers including Bigfoot Interactive, and ClickAction.

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