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Don't look now, Microsoft might be spamming you

July 8, 1999
Web posted at: 10:04 a.m. EDT (1404 GMT)

by Ed Foster, InfoWorld columnist


Do Microsoft's actions qualify as spam?

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(IDG) -- What should we talk about today? Vendors spamming their customers, underhanded end-user license agreements, or a certain company in Redmond, Wash., trying to prove it's not a monopoly by flexing its muscles? I know, let's discuss a gripe that has all of that and more.

On June 18, a reader we'll call Mr. Smith received an e-mail message he found rather flabbergasting. Under the subject heading "Microsoft InSite -- Freedom To Innovate" and originating from a address, the message urged recipients to sign up for the Freedom to Innovate Network at Microsoft's Web site or to call a toll-free hotline number to show support for the company in the Department of Justice trial.

It seemed odd to Mr. Smith that Microsoft would send such a message to that particular e-mail address, a postmaster address for his company. He was certain it had never been used for any correspondence with Microsoft, and there was no reason for Microsoft to believe it was the address of a potential sympathizer.

"What's amazing is that they didn't send the same message to the e-mail addresses I do have registered with them -- namely in the developer network," Mr. Smith wrote. "Why the postmaster address? I don't get it."

If not exactly an unsolicited commercial e-mail, Microsoft's message certainly seemed to qualify as an unsolicited political e-mail. What bothered Mr. Smith even more, however, was the way the message ended with a batch of legalistic disclaimers -- no express or implied warranties, user assumes all risk for accuracy of information, no redistribution for profit by the user -- that could have come right out of one of Microsoft's end-user license agreements (EULAs).

"Microsoft is now resorting to spam as a call to action in its fight for the freedom to inundate (oops 'innovate')," Mr. Smith wrote. "I was spammed by Microsoft, and then told that by reading the message I agreed to a EULA -- I am stunned by the arrogance."
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Mr. Smith felt further justified that Microsoft knew that it was spamming when he tried following the e-mail's instructions for getting his "communication preferences" changed so that he would be removed from Microsoft's address list. Microsoft's unsubscribe site spoke matter-of-factly about how one could get " to quit sending you unsolicited e-mail," a tacit acknowledgement that sending such messages was an everyday occurrence.

I shared Mr. Smith's sense of perplexity over what Microsoft was doing here. At a moment when the company clearly felt the need for friends, it seemed instead to be devising brand-new ways of alienating them. What did Microsoft think it was doing? The answer, believe it or not, is that Microsoft actually thought it was adopting a more rigorous opt-in policy for e-mailing its customers.

As best as could be determined by a Microsoft spokesperson, the story goes like this: Having decided to make a good-faith effort to eliminate opt-out mailings to customers, officials realized they still had a large list of "undeclared" e-mail addresses, where the customer had neither opted in nor opted out of receiving further e-mail from Microsoft.

Rather than let this list of "undeclareds" go to waste, officials decided to do a one-time mailing to the list and give everyone on it a chance to unsubscribe, according to the Microsoft spokesman. The officials chose to send the list their "thin mailing" promoting Microsoft's InSite newsletter, not knowing at the time that the subject of the newsletter would be the Freedom to Innovate Network. The EULA at the end of the message is the standard set of disclaimers Microsoft always adds to the newsletter to protect itself in case of inaccuracies, etc.

Mr. Smith doesn't buy this explanation, partly because he's still sure he never used the postmaster address for any contact with Microsoft. I'm more willing to believe it, but I don't think it puts Microsoft in a very good light, in any case. If Microsoft really does want to stop opt-out mailings to its customers, this is an inauspicious way to begin. And I should add that this isn't the first time I've been told by Microsoft that it is in the process of adopting an opt-in-only policy -- it said the same thing several years ago regarding some gripes also related to e-mail policies.

An interesting side note is that Microsoft's spokesperson also said the company has now dropped the Freedom to Innovate page from its Web site. In a way, I think that's too bad, because while I don't like seeing Microsoft spamming customers to rally political support, I think it is perfectly within its rights to do so on its Web page. Besides, it would have been interesting to see whether the ability to drum up a huge show of support would have proven an effective way of demonstrating you don't have a monopoly.

Ed Foster has been writing about technology and consumer issues for nearly 20 years. Send him gripes about computer companies and products at or visit his forum at

Opinion: Is AOL losing the fight against spam?
July 5, 1999
Users look to ISPs to fight spam
June 16, 1999
War on spam claims legit e-mail
May 18, 1999

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