CANSPAM: Does It Put A Lid On Spam?

CANSPAM: Does It Put A Lid On Spam?

by Teresa Liao, December 2009

How much spam can canspam spam if can spam can spam spam? This tongue twister is far easier to repeat four times than it is to understand the CANSPAM law. It was in fact the Do Not Call Registry, the telemarketing ceasefire, which inspired the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (or CANSPAM) Act. This act, which applies to all commercial email, was signed into law in December 2003, and it forces marketers to have a little decency.

As the full name suggests, the act was first written to protect minors from receiving pornography. The benefits, however, have allowed many to breathe a sigh of relief. The bulk of the law actually requires telemarketers to disclose certain information to the recipient including:

  • The sender's full email address. This address must remain active for a period of 30 days after the email was sent. This means marketing material must be sent from a protected computer.
  • The sender's valid physical postal address.
  • An accurate and descriptive subject line. For example, a subject line reading "tip of the day" would be misleading. "Vegetarian cooking tip of the day" would be descriptive.
  • The subject line must warn of any sexually explicit material.
  • An advertisement label in the subject heading (if the email is unsolicited).
  • An unsubscribe link within the email. Any requests to unsubscribe must be honored within 10 days.

The biggest win is that email addresses can no longer be obtained through automated means. In other words, it is now illegal to buy email addresses obtained through harvesting. The only way a telemarketer can obtain an email address is by getting your consent or through a legal third party agreement.

What the law doesn't protect against is spam from companies that already have an established relationship with you, which includes emails from billing and credit card companies. For example, perhaps you bought an appliance at Sears and provided your email address, because of your established relationship with Sears, Sears can send you email.

Penalties for CANSPAM violators are serious. Violators can face penalties of $250 per violation with an upper limit of $2 million. What the CANSPAM Act cannot do is track down violators. Spammers who use an open proxy are nearly impossible to find. Victims can forward the email address to the Federal Trade Commission at The FTC collects violator list in order to "pursue law enforcement actions." It's vague, and probably ineffective, but who knows unless you try. But just the gleeful thought of possibly bringing a spammer to justice should be enough motivation to send out your email.