Unsolicited, adult-oriented e-mail advertisements don't discriminate -- they infiltrate inboxes everywhere, even those of children unable to buy their wares.
In July, Michigan and Utah implemented new e-mail registries to keep e-mail advertisements containing adult content from reaching children. The registries are getting mixed reviews, largely because previous efforts to regulate online content were shot down.
In 2004, Congress asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the feasibility of a national Do Not E-mail Registry. The FTC recommended against a national registry, citing security concerns and considerable enforcement challenges. Despite the rejection of a federal registry, Michigan and Utah decided to proceed with their own state registries.
Laws in both states prohibit sending e-mail solicitations about alcohol, tobacco, pornography or online gambling to any e-mail address on their registries.
"If children can't have access to it in the offline world, they can't have access to it in the online world," said Dennis Darnoi, chief of staff for Michigan State Sen. Michael Bishop, who pioneered efforts to introduce Michigan's child protection registry.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff likened the registry to a v-chip for the Internet. "It's simply a tool for parents," he said. "If parents don't want to receive material that's harmful or illegal for minors to have, then they simply say, 'I don't want it.'"
While signing up through the registry accomplishes this for them, not everything will be cut and dry, admits Darnoi.
"There will be things that do fall into the great gray category, and we're just going to have to figure that out as we go," he said. For example, there have been some questions about whether e-mail solicitations offering contracts should be included on the forbidden content list. "I suspect that, unless it is a clear-cut case, prosecution or charges are unlikely."
Shurtleff points out that compliance is not an option for those companies marketing products and services inappropriate or illegal for children.
"If companies want to continue doing business [in Utah], they've got to 'scrub' their lists through the system so they don't continue to send material to those homes that say they don't want it," Shurtleff added.
This includes companies nationwide that perform any e-mail marketing containing adult content in the two states. Violators can face as much as three years in jail and up to $30,000 in fines.
But not everyone supports the registries.
A group of e-mail providers plans to sue the state of Utah, claiming the registry violates free speech, according to Shurtleff, who said the state is not worried and will continue to let people register. Ironically, Darnoi said the Michigan registry's strongest endorsement has come from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which testified on behalf of the bill. "They said if you're going to do something like this, this is the way you go about doing it."
E-mail marketing has been useful for getting advertisements to the most contacts without paying. With the registries in place, e-mail marketers who want to market adult products or services in Michigan and Utah must pay a fee to scrub their lists against the registries to filter out registered e-mail addresses -- and the longer the list, the more costly it becomes.
In Utah, e-marketers pay the registry half of one cent per e-mail. In Michigan, the fee can be up to 3 cents per e-mail. The fees in both states are fed back to the registries to maintain and enforce them.
To comply with the registries, businesses must scrub their lists monthly, which they can do by visiting the Web site -- which works for both registries. Once businesses have been legitimately