Faced recently with the choice between yet more proofreading and advancing my feeble knowledge, I spent the better part of a whole day digging into the Feedburner issues mentioned in the previous post. The good news is that I learned a lot. The bad news is that none of what I learned has solved the problem, or is likely to do so.
As was to be expected, Feedburner is now toying with me by sending emails to at least some of the addresses in its subscription list. I can confirm that because I registered a couple of test-addresses, and a few days later a message got through on one account notifying me of a recent post. Unfortunately, that same message did not arrive at two other accounts, so I now have to figure out if the issue is with Feedburner itself (impossible to determine) or with the site hosting those addresses (possible but not likely given their disinterest).
As for fixing potential issues with Feedburner, in fits and starts I managed to work through all of the steps that I later found helpfully enumerated here. If you’re having Feedburner issues yourself, that’s where I’d start. (None of that troubleshooting did anything for me.)
On the subject of whether I’m using Feedburner for my RSS feed, by chance I stumbled across confirmation (now lost) that the only thing Feedburner does with regard to feeds is give you visibility to stats associated with their use. And as far as I can tell, it even does a miserable job of that. Then again I am terminally naive about how to exploit the data habits of people who come to Ditchwalk, so I’m probably missing something. In any case, Feedburner seems to be non-essential for feeds unless you’re an analytics junkie.
The ENews Extended plugin, which was closely associated with StudioPress/Genesis themes for several years, now seems to be deprecated, moribund and — while still working — non-viable if you want to use a solution derived from Cpanel or your own ISP/mail package. I asked a couple of people if they’d ever even seen that plugin configured to use something like Mailman, and they said they had not.
Email Subscriptions and the CAN-SPAM Act
The upshot of all this is that if I can’t get Feedburner working semi-reliably again (at least for me and my own email accounts) I’m going to have to either find another solution or get rid of email subscriptions altogether. Getting rid of them is certainly easier for me, but if I can offer basic subscription functionality I’d like to do so. (I have links to social networking sites after every post for the same reason. I never use them, and I don’t have any Ditchwalk presence on those sites, but I recognize that it’s a convenience.)
As noted in the previous post there’s a law about sending emails, and it’s a law that Feedburner seems to be in violation of. I can now attest that if you go asking questions about email subscriptions in help forums you’re almost inevitably going to end up on the wrong side of bluster-spit from a righteously indignant compliance nazi. This helpful person will explain that the CAN-SPAM Act is law in these here United States, with most other countries having similar provisions. So if you don’t want to end up in violation or legally at risk you need to heed their righteously indignant warnings tout de suite.
Unfortunately, your new-found friend will only be giving you the half of the story that suits their needy temperament. Which, to be fair, does seem to be the whole point of most help forums these days. (If you don’t punish people for their ignorance they will never learn.) But I digress….
I said in the previous post that I decided not to register with MailChimp because doing so required that I include a physical mail address in each outgoing message. Because that seemed a little nutty to me — despite any legal requirements in the CANNED-HAM Act — I decided to dig a little deeper.
MailChimp offers weak advice about how to deal with the physical address requirement if you are not the representative of a large company with retail or administrative offices. It concludes by noting that “sometimes the only answer is to purchase a P.O. Box,” which is also something I’m not interested in doing in order to send out a simple email notification that a new blog post is up.
Because MailChimp is most heavily vested in its own success, and obviously has motivation to gather as much marketing information as possible from registrants, I searched for corroborating claims on more neutral sites. Surprisingly, I seemed to find corroboration everywhere, all of it pointing to provisions in the SLAM-JAM Act:
If you use an email service provider (ESP) to send out an email newsletter (like I use Mad Mimi* to send out The Useletter®), chances are you will be asked for a physical mailing address when you sign up.
This address will be inserted into every email newsletter you send out.
One obvious question, of course, is why Feedburner emails are not in flagrant violation of that regulation, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. For now it’s fair to say that the advice from all quarters is that if you are sending an email to anyone you’re required to include your physical address in that email. Which is of course ludicrous on its face, because we all send emails to each other all the time. So which emails meet that test?
As you might imagine, it’s a whole lot more complex than the forum trolls would have you believe….
Email Subscriptions and Regulatory Compliance
The CAN-SPAM Act was passed in 2003 to stop basically everyone from spamming consumers/users/grandmothers/children/kittens. And as someone who had email back in the day, I can tell you that no matter how bad you think spam is now, it was infinitely worse then. Emails constantly arrived from sources that you couldn’t identify, and emails constantly refused to allow you to opt-out. It was, indeed, unfettered consumer abuse from the largest corporations on down, so I’ve got not beef with the CAN-SPAM Act.
At its heart the CAN-SPAM Act compels anyone sending an email to identify themselves or face the wrath of the U.S. Government:
The CAN-SPAM Act does not give consumers the right to file their own private lawsuit for damages if they’ve received unsolicited junk e-mail. Instead, it lets the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or state attorneys general sue spammers on their behalf to recover damages, impose civil penalties, and to stop the e-mails.
The CAN-SPAM act also compels senders to process opt-out requests in a reasonable amount of time:
Once a consumer sends a business an “opt-out” request, a company has ten (10) business days to comply. If it doesn’t, the business can be held liable under CAN-SPAM for $250 every time that it sends another e-mail to a person who already made an “opt-out” request. A court can increase the amount of damages up to three times if it can be proved that the spammer “willfully and knowingly” refused to stop the e-mails after the consumer’s request.
The devil, of course, is in the details, and in the case of the CAN-SPAM act the details include the mushy question of intent. Assuming that an email comes from a “commercial site”, which is in itself a mushy question vis-a-vis Ditchwalk, the next test is whether the message is commercial or transactional — which in itself doesn’t sound like much of a distinction. So let’s go to the government source for clarification:
Q. How do I know if the CAN-SPAM Act covers email my business is sending?
A. What matters is the “primary purpose” of the message. To determine the primary purpose, remember that an email can contain three different types of information:
- Commercial content – which advertises or promotes a commercial product or service, including content on a website operated for a commercial purpose;
- Transactional or relationship content – which facilitates an already agreed-upon transaction or updates a customer about an ongoing transaction; and
- Other content – which is neither commercial nor transactional or relationship.
If the message contains only commercial content, its primary purpose is commercial and it must comply with the requirements of CAM-SPAM. If it contains only transactional or relationship content, its primary purpose is transactional or relationship. In that case, it may not contain false or misleading routing information, but is otherwise exempt from most provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act.
And now you can see the problem. Who gets to decide which is which? In the end the government site is itself reduced to cartoonish examples which show commercial (monetary) information as the bulk of a message with transactional (relationship) content as a later aside, and vice versa — and that’s really the only distinction. Given the slippery slope that represents for all concerned, and particularly third-party sites like MailChimp which might be used to send out bulk emails in contravention of the law, you can see why they would just make everyone follow the law in the first place. And I can’t blame them. Particularly when you could unwittingly stumble into this:
Each separate email in violation of the law is subject to penalties of up to $16,000, and more than one person may be held responsible for violations.
But. The law itself does not say that everyone sending an email from a commercial site must comply with the requirement to include a physical email address. And that’s particularly true of opt-in transactional (relationship) emails like those delivered by Feedburner from Ditchwalk. If a site visitor signs up themselves, and only receives a notice that a new blog post is up, and can opt out at any time, the only way I could be in violation is if Feedburner failed to honor the opt-out request in the time required.
What the world needs is a double-opt-in Feedburner subscription service that actually works, but because there’s no money in a free service that doesn’t somehow exploit its users that’s unlikely to suddenly appear in the marketplace. Google purchased Feedburner to control a market segment, to kill possible competitors in infancy, and to have access to everyone’s feed data, even at a loss. And for a while that probably made sense. Now that feeds and feed-related commerce are old news, and the CAN-SPAM Act is in force, even Google has no reason to continue to provide the service that Feedburner ostensibly continues to provide.
So what’s the solution for a small blog like Ditchwalk? Well, I think the answer is to jettison email subscriptions. I’m here, you’re there, and as long as the internet works you should be able to find me, and if you want to return you can always bookmark the site. If I can’t get Feedburner working reliably it will either wither in the field or be cut down, but in either case that will be one more tech nag I won’t ever have to think about again.
— Mark Barrett