A few weeks ago, I received this astonishing announcement from Wendy McElroy. As you might know, she runs the ifeminists web site. The weekly newsletter in question was a lovely little round-up of stories related to sex, gender, and so on. It was a quick and easy way to keep up with the news on this topic. It was of particular value because it included interesting stories from out-of-the-way sources. Unfortunately, I will no longer be able to read it so easily. Wendy explains why:
Hello to all:
I am sorry to announce that I will no longer be sending out the weekly ifeminists.net newsletter. Instead, the exact same content will be featured on a page of the website. Of course, news can also be accessed on a daily basis by browsing the newsfeed or by an RSS feed.
On July 1st, new laws regarding e-mailed newsletters went into effect in Utah and Michigan; other states are close behind. Anne P. Mitchell, President/CEO of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy and a law professor, calls those laws “a legal quandry in which every sender of commercial email is about to find themselves.” (See Groklaw for more information. And please note: non-commercial emailers seem to be included if their newsletters contain URLs that link to commercial sites or products.)
Both Utah and Michigan have created a “child protection registry” for email addresses that belong to children or to which children have access. It functions like a “no call list.” Spamfo.co explains, “Once an email address is on the registry, commercial emailers are prohibited from sending it anything containing advertising, or even just linking to advertising, for a product or service that a minor is otherwise legally prohibited from accessing, such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, prescription drugs, or adult-rated material.” In short, e-newsletters (such as ifeminists.net) are not permitted to send to registered email addresses if those newsletters include URLs to news sites that, in turn, link to child-inappropriate commerical information or products such as casino or viagra ads, tobacco or alcohol for sale.
Many credible news sources — especially British ones, it seems — offer links to adult-themed sites or products. These links can change constantly, which means that it is impossible to check a URL and “clear” it of so-called objectionable links or ads.
Moreover, e-mailing to registered addresses is illegal even if the newsletter was requested, and the legal penalties for doing so are imposed without notifying the offender so that he/she can rectify the situation. What are those penalties? To quote Prof. Mitchell again, “Under these laws…that email sender faces strict liability which can include up to 3 years in prison, and fines of $30,000 or more. In addition, ISPs and the individuals whose email addresses are on the registry have a right of action against the sender, as does the state attorney general.”
The only protection is for the emailer to make sure that a particular address is not “illegal” by matching his/her mailing list against the registries. That process requires at least two things that I am unwilling to do: 1) turn my mailing list over to the government; and 2) pay a per-address fee for the matching process. Moreover, since I cannot easily ascertain whether a hotmail or aol address has a final destination within Utah or Michigan, I’d have to turn over and pay for virtually every address on a monthly basis to two state governments. (There now are two; there will soon be several more and I would have to keep up with the variations in law in each state.)
Being charged under the new laws may seem to be a remote possibility. And I would not suspend publication were it not for two factors.
First, the enewsletter includes links to news and commentary on sexual issues such as pornography and prostitution, abortion and gay rights. It includes URLs to such discussion and, in turn, those URLs are more likely than many to point to sites the child registries would consider inappropriate. And, according to the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy, you could be in trouble if your email contains “unpermitted materials, links to unpermitted materials, or even links to sites which have information about the unpermitted materials”. The law is *that* broad and *that* vague.
Second, it is difficult to over-state the viciousness and dishonesty of some of the people who attack father’s/men’s rights advocates. Some have crusaded to destroy the careers, lives, and even harm the families of those who advocate positions like the presumption of shared custody. Given that no notification of an inappropriate address is necessary before penalties can be imposed, I believe it is likely that one of these malicious feminists will subscribe to the ifeminists.net newsletter under an inappropriate address and, then, file a complaint when the e-newsletter arrives.
I won’t take that risk. Nor will I turn over addresses to the government, let alone pay for the privilege.
I have enjoyed publishing the newsletter. I hope you have enjoyed receiving it and that will continue to follow the ifeminists.net news and commentary by clicking on our website at your convenience. To repeat: The newsletter content that you have received each week by email will now be available on a web page: here. This web page will give you the week’s headlines. As other options, you can visit our main index page for daily updates, or subscribe to our RSS news feed. All three options give you the same news items. Choose the form that’s most convenient for you.
Best wishes, as always,
P.S. These laws won’t stop foreign spam (our ISP is American) or spam from “zombie” PCs. They will mean cash from the large email marketers; and will simply stop small companies and non-profit organizations from distributing email newsletters. Read Declan McCullagh’s article for just some of the ramifications.
Remember those heady days when the internet was supposed to circumvent any attempt at government regulation? Even at the time, that seemed naively optimistic. By now, it should be glaringly obvious that government regulations imposed on one geographical region can easily reverberate beyond those borders, precisely because the internet is so very global.
At tonight’s FROG meeting, we discussed some of the ominously increasing restrictions on free speech, particularly those pertaining to campaign finance laws. (Our general topic was essays from Return of the Primitive.) Now anti-spam legislation is becoming yet another cover for government regulation of speech. (Of course, the children must be protected!)