August 17, 2009

Axelrod email crimes

That's right Mr. Axelrod, and everyone else at the White House, crimes. Direct Marketing is an interesting business. It basically consists of the effort of creating a message and sending that message to a targeted group of people, through any number of channels - telemarketing, direct mail or email for example. There's a lot of complexity underlying how that's done, particularly if it's done well.

If it's not done well, it goes to the wrong target, or a mass untargeted group, or includes people who don't want to be included, or worse. And there are a lot of ways it can go wrong. And I know that personally, since it's my day job to manage direct marketing campaigns.

One of the touchiest areas around direct marketing involves privacy. People who have asked to not be solicited and are solicited are having their privacy violated. It's something to take seriously, so much so that there are laws against violating privacy, specifically related to telemarketing, and email spam.

With that in mind, recently the White house sent out what appeared to be a spam type message, regarding health care. The issue was brought to the nation's attention in an at length exchange between Fox News' Major Garrett and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on the matter.

The problem was serious enough, that as Politico reports the White House followed up on the issue by making changes to it's email rules.

“We are implementing measures to make subscribing to e-mails clearer, including preventing advocacy organizations from signing people up to our lists without their permission when they deliver petition signatures and other messages on individual’s behalf,” spokesman Nick Shapiro said in a statement Sunday night.


“The White House e-mail list is made up of e-mail addresses obtained solely through the White House website. The White House doesn't purchase, upload or merge from any other list. … [A]ll e-mails come from the White House website as we have no interest in emailing anyone who does not want to receive an email.

“If an individual received the e-mail because someone else or a group signed them up or forwarded the email , we hope they were not too inconvenienced. Further, we suggest that they unsubscribe from the list by clicking the link at the bottom of the e-mail or tell whomever forwarded it to them not to forward such information anymore.”

The complaints concerned a 1,500-word e-mail sent Thursday in the name of White House senior adviser David Axelrod, including “8 common myths about health insurance reform.” The e-mail mimicked the style of chain e-mails attacking President Barack Obama’s health-reform plan. The subject line: “Something worth forwarding.”

The White House had sent other e-mails to the list without complaint.

The email even sounds like spam in the title. Despite Politico's attempt in the last line to run interference for the White House, serious questions remain unanswered. It doesn't matter if 500 lists went out without complaint, this one is the one where the problems exist. The question is why did it happen?

The White House is clearly trying to deflect blame by indicating some organizations mass enrolled others without their consent. Maybe that's the case, but maybe it isn't. If this were a private company, no doubt the Federal Trade Commission would be all over it wanting to see the database, and understand what the company has done to be compliant with the CAN-SPAM act of 2003 and the changes of 2008.

Regardless of the spam aspect of the situation there are some real ethical concerns with these unintended recipients.

1) How did the White House get their email addresses?
2) Why did they not have any sort of gatekeeper mechanism (for example a verification step) in place to prevent this from happening?
3) Did the White House willing accept these mass lists without any sort of screening process or at least questioning the list sources and contents?
4) What other private data might the White House have, just because they think the target of the data might be someone 'fishy'?

These are legitimate questions and the answers might, if not prove criminal activity, at least provide some difficult to explain away ethical shortcomings of the White House, Mr. Axelrod or, more likely the scapegoat they decide to blame the whole issue on if it ever gets that far.


  1. I used to send out an email newsletter, so I know a little about this, too. I paid Aweber $20 a month so I could have a double-opt system, which meant that the person signed up for the newsletter, and then had to go & click on a link to complete the sign-up. This system protects the person sending out the newsletter from being prosecuted as a spammer in the event someone complains about the email, since the recipient has to take action twice to sign up. You can get into a LOT of trouble for sending out spam emails.

    My question is, how is Axelrod getting away with this? They'd throw the book at you and me, but the White House seems to be getting a pass. Can we complain to the webhost? Or is the webhost the WH?

  2. Thanks for the feedback momcat617.

    I'm not sure where to complain to be honest. It just seems that it's going to get glossed over like everything else questionable coming out of this administration.


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