A recent blog by ZDNet's David Berlind (http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=3697) raised an ominous question for email marketers. Could Web beacons, those invisible 1X1-pixel images we use to detect opens, become illegal?
Let me step back and explain.
If you've been reading the business news these days, you've heard all about Hewlett Packard's spying scandal. If you missed it, the short version is that HP's board went a little overboard trying to track down the source of leaks to the media. One of the tools they used was a trackable email system called ReadNotify. This tool is nothing more than an interpersonal email product (like Outlook), except that it adds in Web beacons to track whether someone opens a message. In this case, they sent a faked leak to a reporter and hoped that the reporter would forward it to the suspect board member for confirmation. Berlind has humorously named this technique PattyMail after the embattled ex-chairperson of HP's board, Patricia Dunn.
As lawmakers and the media have a field day with HP's over-the-top attempts to catch their leak, the idea of trackable email is being portrayed as spyware and personally invasive. Obviously, if used for the reasons and in the manner of HP's board, then I'd agree with this view. However, the technology itself is likely to be thrown under the bus as a result of this misuse. And, if the lawmakers get involved, we could see this technology becoming legislated or even outlawed.
Even if the worst case happens, I don't think email marketing will be hit too hard. Image suppression has already taken a bite out of the effectiveness of Web beacons, so I think marketers will survive if it gets harder to use them in the future.
Nonetheless, the HP scandal is an excellent example of how any technology can be abused. I hope the marketing world can continue to be a good example of how to use this technology and show legislators that any technology, whether it's guns or Web beacons, isn't bad in and of itself -- it depends entirely on how it is used.