New Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) to Crush Small Innovative Businesses
I believe that this legislation could have significant unintended consequences, and while the goal is a noble one, it will negatively impact some innovative small businesses in Canada.
What is spam?
Oxford Dictionary - "irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of recipients."
Industry Canada - "Spam can be defined as any electronic commercial message sent without the express consent of the recipient(s). Spam is also used as the vehicle for the delivery of other online threats such as spyware, phishing and malware."
First off, I am not unsympathetic to the cause here, as someone who manages over a dozen websites and several e-mail queues, I would argue I deal with more spam than most other people. It makes me down right livid some days when I have to pause what I am working on and wipe half of my inbox of useless messages. Most of these truly are unsolicited and either scams or bait to get me to click on a link. The other messages I delete would be considered solicited spam I guess, consisting of newsletters, notifications, and other updates from websites I deal with. I may read 1 out of 10 of these kind of messages so who cares if the government outlaws them right?
On the other hand my entire business is built on electronic communications. Not necessarily e-mail based, but that is certainly part of it. You see I operate a web based service for communities in Alberta called TownPost. TownPost is a sort of local version of Kijiji, where only local residents can use it, people can buy and sell items within their town, businesses can post help wanted ads, and landlords can find tenants and vice versa. It is all absolutely free for the community, and there is just a bit of un-intrusive advertising on the website to help cover the cost of operation. It is local, simple, and I believe this type of service is ahead of it's time whereas 5 years from now every community and town will have this type of web service. TownPost is growing at an incredible rate over the last year, we have over 3.5 million pages viewed are well established in 10 communities within Northern and Central Alberta with roughly 10,000 registered users last I checked.
However, a big factor in our growth has been what we call "local e-mail notifications". When you sign up for your local TownPost website we ask if you would like to receive weekly notifications of new ads, so every monday you get a simple list of new classifieds, jobs, and local events in your town posted within the last week. When I first implemented this I did so with fear and trembling, not wanting to upset our users with e-mail (even though we had requested their permission to do so). But the feedback has been 95% extremely positive, what of the most common things I hear back from people is that they appreciate that we let them know whats new in a simple list. In fact, I understand this is how Craigslist started, they are one of the world's largest free classified sites that was started by Craig Newmark collecting a list of items for sale from people on his list and then fanning out the list to that same subscription group. So in situations like TownPost or Craigslist the intent is not to spam anyone, but rather send relevant messages within a community that use the service. It is also noteworthy that I have personally invested over 20 thousand dollars in advertising to ethically build my base of happy subscribers, can the Canadian Government simply make it illegal for me to communicate with them?
At the end of the day I am not exactly sure how this legislation affects TownPost specifically, if I understand correctly we have collected consent properly so far with the check box. We have a link at the bottom of the e-mail to turn off notifications, or people often reply to the message and we do it for them (plus we e-mail or call them to confirm we took care of it). So I believe we do have 3 years to get express consent from each and every subscriber, with a record to prove we obtained it (IP address, date, etc..). This brings an extra cost that you really don't need when you are running a free local service.
Most small businesses are likely not affected, but innovative web based businesses trying to build useful services are going to get crushed by this. Some of us are trying to chip away at the large american based web services (think Amazon, Ebay, Kijiji, Facebook) with more local based niche services. What makes us better is that we talk to our customers, we know them and they know us. We have our phone number listed on our websites and you can call and talk to the owner instead of a call center or automated voice system. If I can speak on behalf of these businesses I would say we will gladly comply with an unsubscribe, include contact information, and change the subscription checkbox to default to unchecked, but we would prefer if you did not threaten us with 10 million dollar fines when we e-mail our users (not customers because our services are often free).
For more read my second article on the Real Reason for the anti-spam law which explains one of the possible reasons for this draconian law.