What is the CAN-SPAM Act?

The CAN-SPAM Act stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing. Signed into law in the United States in late 2003, CAN-SPAM is the first such law to establish a nationwide set of standards for the sending of commercial email. Under CAN-SPAM, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is tasked with enforcing the act’s provisions. 

At the time, the U.S. was facing an increasing number of complaints surrounding unwanted spam emails; the CAN-SPAM Act is credited with helping to drastically reduce the overall volume of unsolicited emails in the years since its passage. It’s important to note that CAN-SPAM law only applies to the United States — Canada has its own set of anti-spam laws known as CASL.

Why should marketers care about CAN-SPAM?

The CAN-SPAM Act establishes hard guidelines for what constitutes a marketing email: “A commercial electronic mail message [is] any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose).”

Since email marketing is a cornerstone of modern ad campaigns — whether for sales or lead-generation — marketers need to be especially wary that their emails fully comply with these regulations. There are three central pillars when it comes to compliance with CAN-SPAM:

  1. Sending: The email header cannot obscure or hide the information of the server that sent it; the header must contain accurate info pointing back to the email’s sending server.
  2. Content: An email’s “From:” line and subject line must accurately reflect the contents of the message, and the message must include the physical contact address of the advertiser or publisher.
  3. Unsubscribe: Every email must contain a visible and clearly labeled unsubscribe link, and requests to unsubscribe must be honored within 10 days.

However, specifically excluded from CAN-SPAM are transactional emails — messages or communication concerning a purchase or the use of a service. For example, a confirmation message sent after buying something online is a transactional email, which is not subject to CAN-SPAM, while a message advertising a sale on that website is considered a marketing email and therefore falls under CAN-SPAM.

Criminal and civil violations of the CAN-SPAM act can carry serious repercussions for offenders — in some cases, spammers who have fallen afoul of the CAN-SPAM act have faced multimillion-dollar fines and lengthy prison sentences.  

How can I stay compliant with CAN-SPAM?

The FTC’s website has a list of helpful tips and guidelines for making sure your business stays compliant with CAN-SPAM. Here are some of the main takeaways that any marketer who uses email should follow:

  • Provide recipients with a clear and easy-to-read unsubscribe link, and promptly honor all opt-out requests.
  • Tempting as it may be, don’t be misleading with your subject lines and headers — make sure they’re as accurate as possible.
  • Explicitly identify to the reader that your content is an ad or promotional material
  • Tell your readers where you’re located by providing a contact address where you or your business can legally receive physical mail.
  • Pay careful attention to how affiliates or agencies are advertising on your behalf — you may be on the hook if someone violates CAN-SPAM while representing your business.

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