Going back to the debate of whether HTML-enabled e-mails with traceable graphics in them should qualify as spyware, as an observer of how HP used HTML-email to trick CNET News.com reporter Dawn Kawamoto into opening and then forwarding a traceable e-mail (what I've been calling PattyMail these days), that's a tough question that I could argue both ways.
On the one hand, such tracking be used for legitimate business reasons that have no nefarious intent whatsoever. For example, here at CNET Networks, we publish a lot of HTML-based e-mail users and we use their trackability not to capture private information that you wouldn't otherwise want captured, but rather, to improve their usefulness to our audience and to terminate them if we find that that they're not getting opened over long periods of time. On the other hand, there are those who will glean every bit of data from innocent clicks that they can, using the results for deceptive reasons. But, to date, outside of the spam debate, I haven't seen any major privacy advocates raise a stink about the use of tracing techniques in HTML-based e-mail. So, I asked Fran Maier, executive director at TRUSTe, what she thought.
TRUSTe "certifies and monitors web site privacy and email policies, monitors practices, and resolves thousands of consumer privacy problems every year" (according to it's Web site). Most Web users will recognize TRUSTe's Web seal (pictured left) as a visual cue that whatever Web site they're visiting, it has passed muster with TRUSTe's litmus tests for privacy protection.
I can forsee it being very reasonable to put some disclosure like that down in the e-mail.
As it turns out, TRUSTe has already recognized that "spyware" is a rather broad classification into which many Web and e-mail practices are easily, and perhaps errantly slotted. According Maier, there's the technical definition of spyware and then there's the spiritual definition where intent counts. Maier says that HP's PattyMail doesn't technically meet the definition of spyware since spyware almost always involves the surreptitious loading of executable software onto one's system. But she doesn't think the Congressman was out of line in referring to the e-mail as spyware because of its deceptive intent.
Talking about better disclosure and actually getting it are two different things. Should a grassroots movement to disclose the presence of trackable elements on HTML-based emails emerge, there would very likely be some resistance from the electronic marketing sector which has lobbied hard to soften any bill or regulation or definition of spam that could deprive marketers of the freedom to manipulate certain weaknesses in the Internet's e-mail system. They argue that they have nothing to hide. But the truth is that there's a lot of money at stake. Internet users are so freaked-out about the privacy transgressions making the headlines every week that clicking links and opening e-mails are like walking on eggshells. Anything like a visible disclosure that might cause suspicious users to hesitate before opening commercial e-mail could seriously impact a marketer's bottom line. On the other hand, if you've got nothing to hide, why not disclose?
Said Maier of the idea, "Sometimes that's the outcome of a story like this one. It gets the right conversations started."