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What is CAN-SPAM Opt-Out and Its Process?

By Sayem Mustafa | Reviewed By Semra Islam
Published March 20, 2024

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In the evolving realm of digital communication, managing and regulating a tsunami of emails is critical to ensure compliance with laws. The CAN-SPAM Act is one of the many laws in place that outlines guidelines for ethical email marketing activities and safeguards recipients.

At the heart of CAN-SPAM lies the opt-out process, a mechanism designed to empower individuals to reclaim control over their inboxes and curate their email preferences.

What is the CAN-SPAM Act?

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003, commonly known as the CAN-SPAM Act, enacted in 2003, stands as a critical framework in the regulation of commercial messages in the United States. Commercial messages are defined as those primarily advertising or promoting a commercial product or service through electronic mail, including emails and promotions on commercial websites.

It establishes guidelines for ethical email communication to curb the influx of unsolicited and fraudulent emails, promotes transparency, and empowers individuals to control what appears in their inboxes by requiring accurate header information and allowing recipients to opt-out (unsubscribe) from future emails.

What is the CAN-SPAM Opt-Out Process?

The CAN-SPAM Act outlines several requirements for commercial emails, including the provision of a clear and straightforward way for recipients to opt-out (unsubscribe) from receiving future emails. CAN-SPAM Act does not prohibit sending an initial commercial email, even in the absence of consent.

The email message and its subject header must not be deceptive or misleading, the sender’s identity must be accurate and its postal address provided, and the message must announce itself as commercial in nature. However, the CAN-SPAM Act does not require explicit or implicit consent before sending the message.

Instead, any commercial message must contain a mechanism — such as a return email address or an “unsubscribe” link — that “clearly and conspicuously” allows the recipient to opt-out of receiving future emails.

If, at any time, the recipient provides consent for receiving commercial emails, the sender no longer must notify the recipient that the message is an advertisement or solicitation, but a physical postal address and opt-out/unsubscribe are still required. CAN-SPAM Act’s opt-out process typically includes the following elements:

Clear and Conspicuous Opt-Out Mechanism

Commercial emails must include a clear and unambiguous way for the receiver to unsubscribe from receiving future emails. Ensure the notice is easily recognizable, readable, and understandable by an ordinary person, and enhance clarity through creative use of type size, color, and placement.

The emails must include an unsubscribe option that makes it simple for recipients to choose not to receive further communications. While organizations can offer a menu for opting out of specific message types, it's crucial to include an option to stop all marketing messages and take precautions to prevent the spam filter from blocking these opt-out requests.

Opt-Out Requests Must Be Honored Promptly

Senders must promptly honor recipients' requests for opt-out. The opt-out system must be able to handle requests to opt-out for at least 30 days after the email is sent. Under the Act, senders have up to 10 business days to process opt-out requests.

No Fees or Personal Information for Opt-Out

Senders must refrain from charging a fee, requiring the receiver to provide any personally identifiable information (PII) other than their email address, or requiring the recipient to perform any additional action beyond replying to an email or visiting a web page as a condition for opting out.

Sale or Transfer of Email Address is Prohibited Post Opt-Out

Once individuals express their desire not to receive further messages, the organization is prohibited from selling or transferring their email addresses unless transferring to a company hired to assist in compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act.

Identification of the Sender

Commercial emails must include identifying information about the sender, including a working physical postal address. This could be the sender's current residential address, a post office box officially registered with the U.S. Postal Service, or a private mailbox registered with a commercial mail-receiving agency authorized under Postal Service regulations. This makes it easier for receivers to find out who is sending the email and how to contact them.

Third-Party Compliance

If an organization uses a third-party service to send emails on its behalf, the organization and the third party must comply with the CAN-SPAM Act’s requirements. If they fail to comply, legal responsibility may be imposed on both the company whose product is advertised in the message and the company that dispatches the message.

User-Friendly Opt-Out Mechanism

Implementing CAN-SPAM opt-out requires organizations to prompt users with the option to opt-out and include an "unsubscribe" link in the email or message. For illustrative purposes, consider the following message, which complies with the requirement.

‘You are getting this email from [Business Name]. Thank you for expressing interest in [our goods and services]. You may click here to unsubscribe from receiving future emails.’

Managing Opt-Out Requests: Responsibilities and Procedures

One of the most important aspects of email marketing compliance is handling opt-out requests, which usually fall within the purview of the organization or individual sending the emails. These are some best practices for an organization to follow that would facilitate their compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act:

Embed Opt-Out Mechanism

Ensure your emails provide a clear and easy-to-use opt-out (unsubscribe) option. Ensure that the opt-out mechanism is simple for recipients to locate and use.

Automate the Opt-Out Process

Automate the opt-out process to process opt-out requests promptly. Ensure that the individual who has opted out is promptly deleted from the mailing list—no later than 10 business days after receiving their request.

Maintain an Opt-Out List

To prevent individuals who have opted out from being unintentionally added back to the mailing list, maintain an opt-out list according to the principle of data minimization and keep it updated with opt-out requests.

Transactional vs. Promotional Emails

Promptly identify promotional and transactional emails. Even if an individual has opted out of promotional emails, they might still expect to receive transactional emails about their account or transactions. Ensure that individuals who have opted out of receiving promotional material still receive important transactional material.

Assign Responsibility

Educate stakeholders regarding the opt-out process and assign responsibility regarding who will manage opt-out requests. This might involve creating a centralized system where diverse teams from marketing, IT, and customer service collaborate to manage the inflow and outflow of emails.

Compliance Monitoring

Audit email marketing practices, such as verifying that opt-out requests are being honored and that the opt-out process functions as intended.

Customer Support Inquiries

Ensure that customer support staff are informed about the CAN-SPAM Act’s opt-out requirements and that they have an automated system in place to handle opt-out requests from individuals who contact them through support chat/ticket.

Third-Party Email Service Providers

If your organization utilizes an email service provider (ESP) as a third party, ensure they know the CAN-SPAM Act’s opt-out requirements and have the necessary procedures to deal with opt-out requests.

Unsubscribing vs. Reporting Spam

Unsubscribing is a user-initiated prompt to cease receiving emails from a particular sender. The CAN-SPAM Act requires organizations to provide recipients with a clear and effective way to opt-out or unsubscribe from receiving future emails. With the unsubscribe option, recipients have greater control over their inboxes, fostering a transparent environment.

On the other hand, reporting spam is more user-oriented, where recipients flag a particular email by alerting their email service provider about unsolicited and potentially malicious emails, enabling them to identify and prosecute senders engaged in spamming activities.

Frequently Asked Questions

For the purposes of the CAN-SPAM Act, a commercial email is any email whose primary purpose is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service, including content on an internet website operated for a commercial purpose.

Yes, sending commercial emails without allowing recipients to unsubscribe goes against the CAN-SPAM Act’s requirements. Failure to provide an opt-out/unsubscribe option or deny unsubscribe requests may result in fines and legal repercussions.


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