White House Email Acquisition Controversy


Chris Wheeler

UPDATE: The White House responded tonight (8/16/09) after pressure from the general public on relevance and collection methods they’d previously used to send out updates to email recipients over the health care proposal. Fox news story covering the White House response and Major’s reaction this morning (8/17/09) found here.

The White House Press Secretary was called out today during a press conference on the latest email sent from the President’s Senior Adviser, David Axelrod.  You can see the breaking story here.

The crux of the line of questioning with the reporter was the channel email recipients were collected from.  Why did the reporter, Major Garret, have people emailing him that they’d received the health care plan update when they never requested it?  Was the White House engaging in list rental?  Even though the Press Secretary denied anyone getting an email who didn’t explicitly opt in and give the Obama Administration permission from whitehouse.gov, why couldn’t he confirm beyond a doubt only those within scope of opting in were sent an email?  Did the Press Secretary even read the email?

It’s important to note that regardless of what happened, there was no validity of CAN-SPAM violation since that centers around opt-out, not opt-in.  And even if it didn’t follow opt out policies set forth in CAN-SPAM, political emails are seen as exempt from the act.

It’s also important to note that analysis after the initial press conference revealed that most of the emails that recipients didn’t sign up for but ended up receiving were through the “Tell a Friend” feature which the White House has no control over sending. What do you think about this? Questions I pose:

  1. Do you think it’s fair that political emails are exempt from CAN-SPAM?
  2. Should “Tell a Friend” be an option on a heated topic such as this that will inevitably land in some folks’ inboxes and peeve them?
  3. Is it enough for the White House to say it only sent to recipients who opted in at the site or should they provide further evidence of this position?
  4. Do you believe politicians, including but not limited to those in the White House, engage in using rented lists?

I look forward to hearing everyone’s responses and think this underscores again the important debate going on around permission based email marketing.

Chris Wheeler
Director of Deliverability at Bronto
Twitter: @ChrisAWheeler

19 Responses to “White House Email Acquisition Controversy”

  1. Avatar

    1) Fair? Of course it’s not fair. But, Congress isn’t stupid and they want to be able to send whatever email they want to whomever they want.

    2) Tell a friend is always going to be a problem, if the mail is forwarded by a lot of people. Political email has an increased chance of being forwarded and so is at a larger risk for complaints of spam. The question is, can the sender actually control what the recipient does with the email? What if the mails were forwarded manually?

    3) As with other current situations, I expect that no statement or proof is going to be enough for some people to believe. However, I would like to see some evidence that someone at the White House can explain the source of the emails.

    4) I know for an absolute fact that politicians rent, buy, trade, and sell lists promiscuously. Usually you have to give an email address to some political group at one point, but once your address is in that realm it’s mostly fair game. Ken Magill has a series of articles looking at the mail he’s getting from various politicians.

  2. Avatar
    Dylan Boyd


    I think that the government needs to play by the rules that have been set up for all other people. I mean aren’t these emails that are being sent out truly marketing? They are not transactional or account based in anyway and they should be held to the same standards as the entire online world is held.

    I find it to to be slightly frustrating that there are loop holes in the ACT that allow for them to use it to advance an agenda where people might not have opted into hearing about. I know that personally I have 4 examples in one month that are from the Obama Administration list that are all about this current healthcare debate.

    I think it was you that shared this with me yesterday:
    Pg 62 – http://www.ftc.gov/os/2005/01/050112canspamfrn.pdf

    “There are several statements in the legislative history expressing the intentions of members of Congress that CAN-SPAM not encroach on transactional or relationship email communications, or on fully-protected non-commercial speech. For example, Senator Wyden expressed his intent that CAN-SPAM not interfere “with a company’s ability to use e-mail to inform customers of warranty information, provide account holders with monthly account statements, and so forth.” 149 Cong. Rec. S5208 (Apr. 10, 2003). Similarly, Representative Sensenbrenner stated that “the legislation concerns only commercial and sexually explicit email and is not intended to intrude on the burgeoning use of email to communicate for political, news, personal and charitable purposes.” 149 Cong. Rec. H12193 (Nov. 21, 2003).”

    My favorite part of this is that it was written 6 years ago (2003) and it uses the words “burgeoning use of email”:

    “the legislation concerns only commercial and sexually explicit email and is not intended to intrude on the burgeoning use of email to communicate for political, news, personal and charitable purposes.”

    So now that politicians are using email for election purposes is it right that people are unable to stop them from emailing them when advancing an agenda with marketing?

    I guess we can only sit back and see how this unfolds.

  3. Avatar

    I could understand if the RNC or the DNC has used shady tactics to urge getting out a message for political purposes, but I find it slightly disturbing that the White House, the office of the president sent these messages. This is not a political party sending an email. It’s the official email for the president’s office.

    My guess is the reason of how it happened is probably accidental. But this a great opportunity for the email marketing industry to come together and explain our industry’s best practices to the public and take a stand against any sort of unsolicited messages.

  4. Avatar

    It’s amazing! All of the email sent was using FTAF? I’ll bet that’s a record percentage of FTAF use!

    Wasn’t one of the excuses that this must have/could have been paid operatives signing people up? Let’s see some time/date stamps along with the IP addresses of these paid-op “subscriptions”…. Wouldn’t tens or hundreds or thousands of “subsribers” all from the same IP address be a little fishy?

    When the White House asked people to “report” family and friends for sending “fishy” “health care” emails. Many Americans “reported” (or “flagged”) themselves, and it looks like many of those people were the recipients of this Axelrod email.

    So what was it? Dubious subscriptions from a nefarious cabal? Record-setting FTAF use? Harvesting? Or just really poor email practices?

  5. Avatar

    So, I must say I am very pleasantly surprised at all the feedback! The story broke on Friday, was updated yesterday and this morning, and there has been a ton of productive discussion surrounding this topic. Thanks to everyone who responded!

    @Laura – Agreed with your points, esp on Occam’s razor (and not just b/c it’s fun to say). They set up a honeypot account to receive complaints or phishy looking mail that the other side of the isle might be sending (flag@whitehouse.gov). And, in a practice I totally don’t agree with (take that, White House!), they collected addresses submitted to that account and added them to the mailing list. That’s asking..no..begging for trouble. And a list sent out on behalf of the President shouldn’t have this camouflaged type of acquisition b/c, as we see, it can very easily blow up in the administration’s face. And it ticks off a lot of people (read email recipients).

    @Dylan – If I get unwanted political email that I can’t unsubscribe from, I forward on the emails to the appropriate abuse contacts at their email provider. Granted, I’m probably in the very small minority of all the recipients. More to the point, I do believe politicians should eat their own dog food. I just am not sure we would even have CAN-SPAM at all today since someone, somewhere would most likely challenge the First Amendment right to free speech and get the whole thing ruled invalid. Not that CAN-SPAM is the end all be all, but it’s better than nothing. Why can’t the emailing by any group of the federal gov’t be watched by one of the Inspector Generals? I’d suggest the Office of Management and Budget if it weren’t Obama’s email we were talking about, since it’s part of the President’s cabinet. There has got to be some way to hold the government accountable here. What do you think?

    @Bill – Agreed and I think that’s what you’re seeing. This blog as well as several others have alerted the community to the issue. And, if you’re following the communications being put out by the WH, it appears they’re taking note. Do you think we should do anything more to get the email community’s attention?

    @John – I think it’s the latter. Maybe I’m being naive, but going back to my response to Laura, I would hope no President’s office would be stupid enough to engage in flagrantly harvesting or other nefarious strategies. I think this is one that Obama will have to take on the chin, chalk up to being too greedy, not thinking through their acquisition strategy and will hopefully not repeat. You do have to give him credit – he’s the first President to dive into communicating via a technological medium to a substantial degree. He’s bound to make mistakes. Now, the question is, will he learn from this and help set an example moving forward of what not to do? What’s your vote on this?

  6. Avatar

    Actually, Chris your description of the practice is not what I was claiming was Occam’s Razor. I have seen a lot of people insinuate that the flag@whitehouse.gov is collecting email addresses. Unfortunately, most of those same people are also insinuating a lot of provably false things about the Democrats and the White House specifically, so I need to see some proof before I’ll believe it.

    My statement was that people who are signing online petitions that are sent to the Whitehouse by the people collecting the petition signatures, may be having their email addresses captured. If the petition sites are sending email using the email address of the signer to the White House (and I know some petition sites work this way) then to the White House the signer has contacted them.

    I see NO problem with the White House responding to emails sent to them. And many politicians add you to their mailing list if you take the time to send them email about an issue. This is all business as u sual.

  7. Avatar

    Will he learn from this? Something, I hope.

    Will he set an example moving forward? I doubt it. Why would they start now? They’ve always played “sender roulette” and sender recognition is Email 101.

    As I’ve said before, without the other shenanigans (where’s my broom?) this probably wouldn’t have been much of a story.

    Not long after your updated post, the “report your friends and family” email address of flag@whitehouse.gov was turned off. I wonder what’s up with that….

  8. Avatar

    @Laura Thanks for the correction. Thinking back to my college Philosophy 101 class, Occam’s Razor is the simplest and most likely explanation is usually the correct one…something like that? From what I understand, any email address that was collected from the flag@whitehouse.gov account was then added to the email distro list for future White House mailing. Certainly not best practices as not only are people not opting in (I could send your email address to flag@ as part of a “phish” or from some petition somewhere and you’d start getting updates) but also high propensity to offend folks who really don’t want it. They’ve taken the address down now, as John Caldwell pointed out, so hopefully particular point of collection is a thing of the past. But yes, I agree…this sort of tactic is nothing new to the email industry.

    @John – We should try mailing to that address after all this has initially blown over and see if they silently enabled it again. I’m thinking not, but these politicians (and email marketers in general) can be tricky.

    @Scott – Nice review of the content of the message. The PS part seemed untamed to me as well. I couldn’t make myself read the whole thing first time around.

  9. Avatar

    From what I understand, any email address that was collected from the flag@whitehouse.gov account was then added to the email distro list for future White House mailing.

    I’ve heard that alleged multiple times, but never seen any proof of it and, to my mind, that’s not the simplest explanation. I know people are freaking out about the flag@ address. If only they’d been as concerned about warrantless wiretapping.

    The simplest is the petition signing.

  10. Avatar

    @Laura: Fortunately, or unfortunately, I could list several hundred examples of people that have had no contact with the WH in this or the previous adminstration that have received the Axlerod email, and that are strong opponents of the health proposal.

    Something that I find interesting, since you brought it up, is why opponents to warrantless wiretapping are turning their heads on the “report your friends and family” flag@ program/campaign. What makes this any less Stalinistic? And if it wasn’t related, then why take down the flag@ address?

    I can tell you without a doubt that the political right isn’t as sophisticated with all of this online stuff – especially email – as you give them credit for. The arrogance on both sides of the aisle when it comes to email is staggering. And we contribute to and co-sign bad behavior everytime either side is given a pass on that behavior solely based on the letter following their name.

    Most of the petitions that I’ve experienced don’t line-by-line data to whomever they are presenting the petition to, nor do they include the signatory’s email address, but instead the signatory’s name and ZIP; sometimes City/State and even physical address. An individual’s email address has no bearing on their voting district.

    Based on the simplest theory theory, WH establishes the flag@ address and shortly afterward people that have never subscribed to receive emails from the party in power at any level receive the Axlerod spam.

    The petition theory only holds up if people that never subscribed to the WH or party in power submitted a petition and received email messages from the WH prior to the establishment of the flag@ address.

  11. Avatar

    I’m glad there is so much discussion on this topic here. I haven’t really seen other places in the email community that have been discussing it.

    I would hope that given that email marketing has come up as a national topic, someone from the DMA or similar organization ( EEC?) could engage the media (while the story is hot) about what steps good marketers take to prevent such things from happening. If the public thinks that everyone in the industry is as careless as this recent White House problem, then the reputation of email as a great marketing vehicle will take the hit from this.

    We should take the opportunity for email marketing to be defined in a positive light as opposed the negative “annoying” spammish light is has been in this story.

  12. Avatar

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Bill!

    Are we as an industry willing to stand by and watch what we’ve all worked so hard for trashed over political ideology?

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but email is how I pay my bills and feed my family, and it’s more important to me than some short-term political gain by one party or another. They need to come up to our standards; we shouldn’t stoop to theirs. Does one’s professional integrity take a back seat to whatever their political beliefs may be?

    I think that we need to stand up as an industry and let the public know that we don’t approve of this kind of behavior, lest the public think that we are all of the same ilk as Karen Jagoda.

  13. Avatar

    @Laura – thanks for the call out from your blog at WTTW.

    @John – I, too, make a living from enforcing what will be most successful for clients (or at least providing them the information). Email’s success as a marketing and communication medium depends on how those who use it, use it. So, with the WH doing something that’s so negatively perceived, we should let our voices be heard and separate ourselves from the latter that find this acceptable. Otherwise, Schroedinger’s Cat dilemma will kick in and either way, we as email professionals will suffer if the bar is lowered by such actions as the WH and other major senders partake in. I hope this blog article and ensuing discussion have helped add our voices to the sea.

    @Bill – I will definitely push this along to the EEC and other organizational entities I think would be interested. Thanks!

  14. Avatar


    Thanks. I posted a topic as a discussion item on their facebook page after I heard about the story, the last time I checked there were no posts about it.



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