With all the brainpower in the computer industry, don’t you think our supposed
experts would have invented by now a standard way to get off an e-mail list
without you having to hunt and peck through a different procedure every time?
One of the few things that the “YOU-CAN-SPAM Act” did when it went into
effect in the U.S. last January is to require that all bulk e-mail
mesages contain a way to unsubscribe. Many other countries have similar
or much stronger requirements.
But in a
of legitimate e-mail newsletters, Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen found that
it took end users an average of 3 minutes and 5 seconds to
unsubscribe from the typical newsletter. And that’s how long users needed to
decipher a respectable unsubscribe page, not some phony Web
form set up by spammers.
Hunting around an unfamiliar Web page for three minutes is more work than
simply pressing the Delete key every time an unwanted newsletter appears. For
this reason, e-mail users are far more likely to click Delete, or create a
filter rule to divert such newsletters, or erroneously use a Report Spam button
than they are to try to unsubscribe.
I reported in this space
that a small startup company, Lashback LLC, is successfully selling a
$29.95-per-year service to handle unsubscribes automatically. When e-mail users
click Lashback’s special button, the company tests any unsubscribe link found
in a particular e-mail message. Only if the unsubscribe mechanism really
works is the user’s e-mail address submitted to the sender of the e-mail.
If the unsubscribe method is a hoax, Lashback starts filters out all similar
messages so the user never has to see them.
I wish this startup well, but its automated unsubscribe-management service
would seem to be an obvious feature for e-mail programs themselves to provide.
Therefore, I have a modest proposal.
Using Ctrl+Del And Shift+Del
Imagine this: The Delete key on our keyboards could become just one of three,
equally-fast methods to dispose of e-mail messages:
Pressing the Del key in future e-mail programs would move a message into
the trash, just as it does now.
Holding down the Ctrl (control) key with Del would launch an automatic
unsubscribe process back at newsletter headquarters. An easy way to remember
this key combination is that “Ctrl+Del” is how you “Control Your Subscription.”
Holding down the Shift key with Del would report the selected message
as spam. This would also invoke whatever penalties an Internet service
provider happens to offer. The memory-jogger for this key combination is
that “Shift+Del” and “Spam” both start with the letter S.
Lashback’s button, which integrates into Microsoft Outlook and Outlook
Express, effectively figures out for you which bulk e-mail you can safely
unsubscribe from and which are scams that you must filter out in the future.
It uses a simple formula to make this decision: A working unsubscribe
mechanism equates with legitimate e-mail, a bogus mechanism indicates spam.
A study I reported on in my
last column, however, found that 51% of the e-mail
newsletters from 1,000 legitimate companies, including most of the Fortune 500,
provide no unsubscribe link at all. In addition to that fact, I doubt that
most e-mail users will add another $29.95-a-year service to their budgets
just to perform a function that all e-mail programs should already have.
Moving Toward An Industry Standard
It seems to me high time, therefore, that users demand a new Internet
standard that makes an unsubscribe process that’s guaranteed to be safe
as simple as clicking a single button or a pressing a single key combination.
Michael Perone, marketing vice president of
Barracuda Networks, feels such a standard shouldn’t be
proprietary. “It would be much easier for people to accept if it was an
open-source thing,” he says.
Perone’s company makes the Barracuda Spam Firewall, a 1U rackmount appliance
that won an Editor’s Choice award last May from among 28 filtering solutions
tested by Network Computing magazine. But the device as yet
has no Lashback-like way to determine for an end user whether an unsubscribe
link is safe to invoke.
A legitimacy rating system, Perone says, “could have levels of good or
not-so-good,” rather than simply pass/fail. “Maybe some server wasn’t working
or something.” A temporary outage should be factored into a newsletter
publisher’s score rather than a single failure causing a permanent demerit.
Such a ranking mechanism could be set up “like RBLs [real-time blocklists]
are done today, with some kind of reverse DNS lookup,” Perone explains.
“Guys like SpamHaus and SpamCop must be thinking of going to that.”
Sophisticated And Automated
The inability for end users to trust the anarchic unsubscribe mechanisms of
today’s e-mail lists hurts legitimate publishers while doing nothing to
deter spammers, says David Troup, president of
Solinus.com. His company
makes MailFoundry, a new spam-filtering appliance that began shipping on
Sept. 8, too recently to have been considered in Network Computing’s
A sophisticated yet automated way to discern good senders from spammers is
necessary for e-mail to work as a reliable communications medium, Troup says.
“When you have end users participate in spam reporting, you get a tainted
database [with many false complaints],” he explains. “We encourage our users
to report spam, but each report goes to a human editor.”
Troup suggests that, as long as a working unbsubscribe mechanism is now
required by law in the U.S. and elsewhere, the procedure could be standardized
using Internet methods that any e-mail program can tap into. For example,
e-mail servers that send out legitimate lists can be reached by e-mail programs
via routines called POST and GET.
“In the HTML format, you can send that POST or GET to a mail server,” which
could interpret the feedback as an unsubscribe command, Troup says.
A Seal Of Confidence
Until this kind of reliable unsubscribe method is standardized and widely
available, Lashback has its own proposal to reassure end users that a
particular newsletter honors cancellation requests.
The company offers to publishers a
Safe Unsubscribe” seal. This is a small graphical image that publishers
with a demonstrably working unsubscribe mechanism can display in their
newsletters and on Web pages. Clicking the image leads the user to a separate
explanation staing that the sender is certified by Lashback
to honor removal requests and that any e-mail addresses entered are safe
This is a great idea. Unfortunately, a quality seal from a little-known company
doesn’t exactly have the reassuring ring of “UL Certified” and other
programs that are backed with millions of dollars of advertising.
Thanks to the so-called smart folks who invented the Internet’s weak e-mail
protocols, however, an ID effort from an obscure little software company is
currently about the only guarantee of an unsubscribe mechanism that we’ve got.