FTC Sets Adult Content Labeling for E-Mail

The commission's rule applies only to messages sent without 'prior affirmative consent.'

Unsolicited e-mail containing sexually oriented material must carry the warning "SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT:" in the subject line after May 19, according to a new rule issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The rule is aimed at helping consumers filter out messages they aren't interested in receiving. It's also meant to shield them from viewing offensive material, should they accidentally open the message.

The second aim is why such messages must also employ the electronic equivalent of a "plain brown wrapper." That means that people opening the message should immediately see only the warning, and other required information written in ASCII text -- not in an image file. Recipients would then have to scroll down or click on a link to see the message and any images contained therein.

The "wrapper" concept may prove a difficult one in practice, because of the different ways e-mail clients display messages. The FTC acknowledged potential difficulties.

"Nevertheless, an initiator of sexually oriented e-mails is not without tools to ensure the 'initially viewable' portion of an e-mail message does not force the recipient to be confronted with offensive and objectionable material," the FTC document says.

Required information in the "wrapper" includes the "SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT:" warning; notice that the message is a solicitation or ad; opt-out information; a physical address; and instructions on how to access the sexually oriented information.

The requirements don't apply if someone has given "prior affirmative consent" to receive such messages.

The decision is the first the FTC has unveiled since it began considering how to implement the CAN-SPAM Act, passed by Congress and signed into law late last year.

The commission has also sought comments on the Do-Not-E-Mail provisions of the law, and is preparing a report with recommendations. The deadline for public comment on other parts of the law was recently extended to April 20, after several trade organizations requested more time.

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