|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 49||June 15, 1999|
Lots of good things are happening on the Internet. Internet activism is expanding. Political candidates are setting up cyberspace storefronts. Online fundraising is getting more creative.
The explosive growth of online activism in recent years has been possible largely because of Internet mailing lists. Grassroots activists working on a wide range of issues have found email an effective supplement to traditional outreach tools like flyers, phone trees, and fax lists. It's faster and its cheaper, and it can reach a lot more people.
But email lists are becoming more commercial, as Washington Post reporter John Burgess noted in a recent article. There are now three major companies that host Internet mailing lists free of charge.
This trend could be a welcome development for activists and organizations with limited resources, especially those without the technical expertise to set up and operate list software. But, as NetAction recently learned, it may have a down side for groups that already operate lists. The list information on commercial mail hosting sites isn't always accurate. And it may not be helping you build your subscriber base.
NetAction's recent experience with eGroups and Topica is a case in point.
Recently, we learned that eGroups was "promoting" NetAction's mailing lists by substituting egroup email addresses for NetAction's mailing list addresses, and duplicating our archive of copyrighted newsletter content on their site -- all without our knowledge or permission. In effect, eGroups was representing NetAction's mailing lists to its readers as egroup lists. Even more alarming, eGroups users who subscribed to NetAction's mailing lists from the egroups address were getting inaccurate information about the way our lists operate, and the eGroups archive of NetAction Notes newsletters was actually an archive of Micro$oft Monitor articles.
At about the same time, we discovered that Topica has been providing subscription information for a defunct NetAction list, which hasn't been used for more than a year.
Needless to say, none of this was helpful to NetAction. Internet users who visit eGroups and Topica have no way of knowing that the information about NetAction's lists is inaccurate. Nor was it apparent that the commercial mail hosting sites were responsible for the errors.
What I found most disturbing about this is that neither eGroups nor Topica had contacted NetAction to let us know that they planned to include information about our mailing lists on their sites, to ask our permission to do so, or to verify the accuracy of what they were posting. Since these are commercial ventures, presumably attempting to make a profit, this strikes me as a poor way of doing business. At a minimum, these commercial email list hosting sites owe it to their customers to provide accurate information.
Both companies promptly agreed to delete the information about NetAction's lists from their site.
The eGroups representative I contacted didn't seem to understand my concern, and had this to say:
I think the confusion stems from the use of 'egroup' (lower case) to refer to what some call an email list. We are trying to get away from the list terminology since it sounds like a spam or direct marketing thing to the inexperienced. So a reference to the "egroup NetAction" is not meant to imply that we host it. You will find this use of the terminology in favor of 'list' in all our materials, and increasingly in analyst and newspaper reports. We are "eGroups.com", and we host egroups along with our competitors and other organizations.
Topica's public relations representative explained their error as follows:
Our directory is put together by a team of people who find email lists and categorize them. Besides the various ones that get recommended or added by the list owner, many of the lists came from our directory partners - Liszt, PAML and TILE.net - all publicly accessible directories of email lists. Is it possible that someone at some time listed your now-defunct email list "NetAction" with one of those directories? If NetAction was listed in one of these directories, and has been categorized in Topica as a result.
If they gave out an award for online PR bloopers, I'd nominate the folks at RealNetworks who wrote the subscriber information for "This Week in WebActive." According to the subscriber information included in their email newsletter, Internet users who dare to unsubscribe from WebActive will be banned forever from every one of RealNetwork's mailing lists.
A useful site for online activists, WebActive features links to audiocasts of progressive radio programs, and online political commentary.
But the subscriber information at the bottom of every mailing includes the following statement:
You can unsubscribe to the WebActive mailing list at any time. However, please be aware that if you do unsubscribe, you will not be able to subscribe again to WebActive in the future using the same e-mail address. Furthermore, you will also not be able to subscribe to any of RealNetwork's other mailing lists.
Maybe it's just me, but this sure sounds like a threat to blacklist anyone who dares to unsubscribe. Chances are it's just the result of poor communication skills.
Imagine what it would be like if other businesses adopted this policy. You're taking a long vacation so you want to temporarily cancel your newspaper subscription. But when you call to do so, the carrier warns you that you will never be able to get the paper delivered to that address again. Or you decide to try a new long distance phone company, and the service representative for your current provider tells you that you can never get service from them again at your present address.
It's absurd, of course So why is this the policy for WebActive's list? I wish I could tell you. But no one from WebActive responded to my message when I wrote to express my concerns.
There is a popular Microsoft jokes that has circulated for years: "Ten Things That Would Be Different If Microsoft Starting Building Cars." My personal favorite is Number 3:
Occasionally your car would just die for no reason, and you'd have to restart it. For some strange reason, you'd just accept this.
The funny thing is, this attitude isn't a joke. As we have reported before in NetAction Notes, the software industry is pushing hard for changes in the Uniform Commercial Code that would allow companies to establish software licensing terms that consumers would be required to accept prior to obtaining the software.
Recent news reports indicate that the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) may soon be introducing a bill that would establish standard regulations on the sale and use of software. The Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA), is similar to the Uniform Commercial Code Article 2B proposal that was previously rejected. Consumer advocates believe the proposal violates consumer rights. If it is eventually enacted by the state Legislatures, consumers, software developers, and writers will lose important protections.
Earlier this month, members of the Working Group on Consumer Protection of the American Bar Association Business Law Section, Committee on the Law of Cyberspace, Subcommittee on Electronic Commerce, wrote to NCCUSL to express their opposition to the proposed bill.
"UCITA's primary purpose is to shift the balance of power in mass market software transactions and strengthen the ability of vendors to dictate terms in adhesive form contracts," the authors of the letter stated. "The effect would be reduced competition among software vendors concerning the products and terms they offer and less incentive to increase quality, avoid interference with fair use rights, and be responsive to customer dissatisfaction."
The complete letter is on the Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE) archive, at: http://commons.somewhere.com/rre/1999/RRE.UCITA.formerly.Artic.html.
The letter reflects the views of a group that includes academics who specialize in the law of consumer protection, current and former legal services lawyers, representatives of consumer advocacy organizations, and lawyers in private practice who represent consumers and small customer interests.
Attorney and author Cem Kaner has been involved in the drafting of this proposal as an advocate for the interests of software consumers, developers, and writer. Detailed background on the issue is available on his web site at: http://www.badsoftware.com.
NetAction Notes is a free electronic newsletter, published by NetAction. NetAction is a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting use of the Internet for grassroots citizen action, and to educating the public, policy makers, and the media about technology policy issues.
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