Marc's Rants


October 9, 1999


I receive numerous e-mail messages every day. Sorting through and responding to them is time-consuming and frequently unproductive. Most junk e-mail I trash without a second thought. From time to time, however, I encounter a case of ignorance so profound it must be addressed.

This week is a case in point.

A non-profit group, which (principally out of fear of a specious lawsuit) I will allow to remain anonymous, sent me the third in a series of e-mail newsletters. Two copies of it.

The newsletter, and its predecessors, included an AOL address to respond with comments, but no instructions for unsubscribing or explanation of why I was selected to receive it.

Believing the group had made a mistake out of ignorance, not greed or malice, and being concerned about the non-profit group's reputation, I elected to take action.

I sent an e-mail to the group explaining what I believed was the issue and what they should do to address it. It was a fairly polite message and full of compliments for the group's other work.

It included the following three requests:

Because I'd hate to see (the organization's) reputation permanently damaged by this misstep, I strongly urge you -- before you continue publishing the e-newsletter -- to:

  • Send an apology (and only ONE apology) to all recipients of your newsletter, including an opt in mechanism for those who wish to continue receiving it. The apology should include an unambiguous privacy policy and commitment to respecting the rights of those who are not members of your group. Those who do not reply with a request for further issues should be promptly removed from your e-mailing list.
  • Include a clearly explained opt out mechanism in future issues for those who wish to discontinue receiving (the newsletter).
  • Cull your list to remove duplicate addresses so people like me, already inundated by daily e-mail and forced by network managers to use e-mail applications without filtering mechanisms, don't have to deal with duplicative e-mail as well.

On behalf of all those who have been made paranoid by disreputable e-mailers and will not approach you themselves -- and not specifically my employer, ACSA -- I thank you in advance for your prompt consideration of this request. Please contact me at the number below if you have questions about this request or require my assistance in implementing the suggestions.

A short while later, one of their executives replied, noting that they were new to the technology, didn't know all the rules yet, and were happy to remove me from their list. However, the reply did not address my other concerns or suggestions.

I did a little more research on the organization and its activities and discovered that it was a member of another organization called Kids in the Know, a group principally representing publishers of books and magazines aimed at children, that is opposed to much of the pro-privacy legislation making its way through Congress and several state legislatures.

In particular, Kids in the Know opposes HR 1972, authored by Rep. Bob Franks (R-NJ), California's AB 205, authored by Assembly Member Lynne Leach (R-Walnut Creek), and California's SB 129, authored by state Senator Steve Peace (D-El Cajon).

Kids in the Know also has expressed concern that Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT), chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, will be pursuing privacy initiatives as part of his "Digital Dozen" telecommunications issues, including online privacy.

Finally, the group is now advising the Federal Trade Commission on how to implement child privacy regulations. Although some of their reqested changes and exclusions in the regulations are positive, many of them are hostile to the concerns of parents and the privacy rights of children in favor of the interests of the marketing departments of their constituent organizations.

Of course, all this activity counter to the privacy interests of children and their parents would look even worse if Kids in the Know didn't also work to promote children's safety. To help them look like the good guys, they are working jointly with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop publications to help kids and their parents protect themselves from crime aimed at children. Although these publications offer good advice to parents and their children, this is akin to blaming a rape victim for the crime against her ("She wanted it. Look at the way she's dressed."), putting the burden back on the the children, who are most subject to exploitation, rather than on law enforcement and community responsibility, where it should rest.

It is clear that (this organization) "just doesn't get it" with respect to privacy issues. This is likely because many of the child-oriented publishers who are members of their organization must exchange marketing lists to grow their subscriber bases, and they are driving the decisions.

Nevertheless, because children (I won't get into the issue of adults, because that's a grayer area) are vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation, commercial enterprises should not collect and trade demographic data on children without the consent of the children's parents if the data can specifically identify individuals and their purchasing habits. It's that simple. Legislation prohibiting all collection and exchange would be bad for business, but I don't believe that is the intent of the authors of the legislation opposed by (the organization). Nor do I believe, as Kids in the Know and (this organization) claim, that collecting and distributing personal information about children and their parents is in the best interest of the families involved, or society as a whole. And it is clear from (the newsletter distribution) that a voluntary system of privacy is not particularly effective; why should I trust companies with a financial incentive to ignore my wishes to do any better?