Newt Gingrich loves spam

Newt Gingrich (Newt 2012)

Newt Gingrich's Newt 2012 organization is aiding and abetting spammers. Hard to believe, I know, but it turns out his organization is providing targeted email addresses for spammers to use. Don't let your organization make the same mistake. I'll explain all in The Long View...

By Richi Jennings.

Politicking is expensive. Running for U.S. President is extremely expensive: the Obama 2012 campaign raised $53,000,000 in March alone. Now that Newt Gingrich has conceded defeat... ahem, sorry, suspended his campaign, his Newt 2012 organization is thought to be at least $4,300,000 in the hole, and there's little chance of raising sufficient funds to pay off that debt. That's thanks in part to Federal Election Commission rules that specify donation limits of $2,500 per supporter.

When a person or organization is facing unmanageable debt, what do they do? Why, sell off some assets, of course. But what does Newt 2012 have to sell? Its database of supporters.

I'm grateful to Ken Magill for spotting this flagrant breach of privacy and ethics. Ken and I don't usually see eye-to-eye: He's an email direct-marketing advocate who often strays across the line into spammer apologia. However, I do love his straight-talking style, and in this case, he and I are singing from the same hymn sheet:

Renting email lists is a sure path to delivery troubles. ... Email from senders who haven’t received permission from recipients to send messages to them tends to...generate spam complaints, raising the risk that ISPs will filter the email as spam.

In fact, based on my research, the situation's worse than Magill makes out. Newt Gingrich's organization is simultaneously doing two bad things:

  1. Selling private details while having promised not to do so -- including your email address.
  2. "Appending" -- which means that even if you didn't provide your email address, it can be inferred from another source.
OK, so let's dig into these two morally-questionable questions, one at a time...

1. Selling or renting email addresses is wrong

Newt 2012's Privacy Policy says:

  • "We are committed to protecting your privacy online."
  • "We may also use your email address to provide you news and information about Newt 2012. We may also...send you email messages about upcoming events or activities in your area."

The first bullet tells me that the organization will do all that it reasonably can do to not give anyone else my personal details. Indeed, the organization thinks it's so important, it uses the phrase twice.

Those details would of course include my email address -- why wouldn't they, unless it's specifically mentioned elsewhere? Well, the second bullet is the only mention of what the policy permits them to actually do with your email address.

In other words, the policy clearly says that the organization won't sell or rent your email address. I don't think it could be clearer, unless it had come right out and said we will not sell or rent your email address.

Sadly, as Mr. Magill discovered, they are selling their supporters' email addresses. Frankly though, forget the moral question of whether or not the policy permits it; using sold or rented email addresses is something that only spammers do. 2. Email appending is wrong

Newt 2012's Privacy Policy also says:

  • "We may obtain information about you from outside sources and add it to or combine it with the information we collect."

Let's say you donate to the Newt 2012 campaign, but you decline to give them your email address (because you value your inbox-sanity). It appears that the organization can work with other sources of personal data to match your name and zip-code, and get your email address anyway. As MAAWG, the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group puts it:

“Email appending”...refers to taking known demographic information and using various methods to determine an email address for the purpose of adding people to a list or otherwise sending them email messages.
...
[It] is abusive...permission is not transferable...[it] is never
acceptable. ... Legitimate marketers do not engage in email appending.

This is one of those areas where Magill and I disagree. He thinks email appending can be a fine and dandy proposition, whereas I think that only spammers do it.

TL;DR: Newt loves spam...
Don't let your organization make the same mistake as Newt 2012. If you sell email addresses, you're supporting spammers. If you buy e-appended addresses, you're a spammer.

The fact that it's theoretically legal in the U.S. doesn't change anything. It should tell you something that it's illegal in most of the rest of the developed world (including Australia, Canada, and all the countries of the European Union).

 
What do you think? Comment below...

Richi Jennings, blogger at large

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. As well as The Long View, he's also the creator and main author of Computerworld's IT Blogwatch, for which he has won ASBPE and Neal awards on behalf of IDG Enterprise. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, follow richij on Google Plus , or just use good old email: TLV@richij.com. You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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