What part of 'no spam' don't you understand?

A young techie learns contracts are meant to be broken at a marketing firm that's more than a little lax with its ISP's rules

Honest mistakes are one thing. But claims of special privilege mixed with willful disregard of rules is another. My first IT job, some years ago, was with a company where the execs started off by making an honest mistake, but unfortunately descended to the latter. By the time I left, they still hadn't learned their lesson.

The company was a very small marketing firm that held events to introduce vendors to potential customers. I was the IT jack-of-all-trades, fresh out of school and thrilled to be working in the industry. I soon found out my education hadn't prepared me for how the company dealt -- or, rather, didn't deal -- with a problem that cropped up.

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For any particular conference, the marketing department would do searches for firms and organizations that might be interested in the conference topic, then send them a marketing email about it. The marketers also added email addresses to the marketing list garnered from colleagues and other sources.

Spam masked as marketing

This had been going on for some months when I received a phone call from our ISP's abuse department, explaining about the spam our company was sending out and how our contract did not permit it.

I was surprised and said I'd look into it and call back. I asked around the office, but nobody claimed to be aware of the ISP rules or even known what was in the contract. I dug up a copy of the contract; sure enough, our company was violating the terms.

I called the ISP's representative back. He understood it was an honest mistake and, since none of us had been aware of the rules, even told me they would let us continue spamming for a few more weeks while we implemented an opt-in system.

It goes all the way to the top

I reviewed all of this with the company president, "Chip," and the email marketing person, "Dale." Nothing doing, they both told me. An opt-in system would be too expensive and would put the company out of business. Besides, they said, we carefully screen all names and honor all removal requests, so we're not really doing anything wrong. We're not "real" spammers, like those Viagra people. We're a legitimate business.

For the next several months, I continued fielding phone calls from the ISP's abuse department, sometimes taking the calls myself, other times forwarding them to either Chip or Dale when I felt particularly uneasy about the ethical implications of our actions. I also periodically met with Dale to discuss the problem, explaining that what we weren't honoring our contract and if we didn't knock it off, we'd face consequences. He never took me seriously.

Finally, the ISP called and told me that we were on our final warning: If the ISP received even one more spam complaint about us, it was going to disconnect our service. I asked the provider to send the warning in a written form so that I could use it to persuade Chip and Dale to change their ways. Then, I met with both Chip and Dale, explaining that we must stop spamming. They waved my concerns away, as usual.

A few days later, during an all-hands meeting, Chip and Dale blithely discussed the start of the next email blast the following morning. I was too stunned to speak -- and what I was thinking could not be said out loud.

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