Email, business and social norms

I wanted to note an interesting anomaly in a new survey that examines Americans’ attitudes toward the privacy issues involved in using cell phones to pay for things (instead of cash or a credit card).

The survey (which is online here and is summarized by The New York Times here) finds that Americans react very negatively to the kinds of privacy invasions that mobile payments can cause.

But as the report’s authors (Chris Hoofnagle, Jennifer Urban and Su Li) write, “While opposition to registry information sharing is strong across all categories we analyzed, email sharing mails seems to be the least sensitive category”. While 80%+ of respondents objected to the sharing of other personal information such as home addresses, phone numbers, or store browsing activity, for some reason opposition to address sharing email was significantly lower, with 33% “probably” or “definitely” willing to allow it.

I think it is interesting to ask why this would be so.

I believe there are two answers. First, people still have a strong residual feeling that an email address is more anonymous than other types of information. It is true that one can create multiple or disposable addresses that may be difficult for a store or others to link to your identity. However, it also happens that e-mail addresses are not reliably anonymous. Most people use the same email address(es) for most of their lives, and email addresses are increasingly being used to identify you by the enormous machinery that the advertising industry continues to build to track individuals online and offline. Email addresses serve as a unique identifier that can help establish that the person who purchased a product here is the same person who posted a comment there and became interested in a certain topic here. (Of course, it’s also very easy for the government to get your identity, unless you’ve gone very far and really know what you’re doing.)

Second, direct email marketing isn’t much of a problem for most people. Americans are pragmatists and, for the most part, they only worry about practical consequences. Most sophisticated online tracking mechanisms are still largely invisible to them. And reputable companies don’t abuse email marketing.

I think that last fact is one of the interesting things that has happened over the past 20 years as the internet has evolved. At one time, there was great concern that every company that could get their hands on anyone’s email address would bombard that person with ads. However, amid widespread frustration over the deluge of trashy and juvenile spam, it was becoming socially unacceptable for a company with the slightest concern for its reputation to behave in a way that looked like something similar. This is an example of social standards as important as current law to regulating corporate behavior – and in a rare context where companies could not hide their behavior from consumers. This social norm has in turn made possible the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, and the FTC’s Implementing Rules, which codified that consensus and gave it the force of law, including firmly setting standards for how easy it should be to opt out of commercial email.

Obviously, none of this affected the flow of spam from the low end, but no business with a physical storefront is likely to annoy a customer with spam, at least more than once if the client withdraws.

No, the real problems are the things that happen behind the scenes.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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