Don’t Fight the Email Laws – Know Them!


You probably already know that email marketers must abide by certain laws when sending messages for any commercial reason. But did you know that the sending of messages on behalf of a government entity is guided by additional rules and regulations? Learn the fundamentals of these requirements and the basics for implementing them into your own email practices.

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or legal expert — nor is this list intended to provide an exhaustive set of guidelines — so, if you have any questions about your own email practices, please consult an attorney specializing in this field.)

CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act of 2003 — Violations of this American anti-spam legislation are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and can carry penalties of up to $16,000 per incident.

  • Send messages only to contacts who have explicitly opted-in/subscribed.
  • Truthfully represent your agency/organization in the “from” and “reply-to” addresses and website domain URL.
  • Match the content to the subject line; don’t mislead readers or trick them into opening the message.
  • Include a valid postal address (street or PO Box) in the message.
  • Include an easily-identifiable opt-out option and the ability for subscribers to universally unsubscribe from all of your lists.
  • Honor opt-out requests promptly.
  • Know what your affiliates and contractors are doing on your behalf, as you are ultimately responsible for their actions.

Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) — Similar to the U.S.’s CAN-SPAM regulations, CASL applies to subscribers in Canada. With today’s globalization of government and commerce, it’s smart to follow permission-based subscriber-acquisition best practices to remain compliant with both sets of legislation.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act — As amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Section 508 requires that all electronic media content be equally accessible to people with disabilities. On average, 13.2 million people in the U.S. have at least one disability protected by Section 508.

  • Set up content in a structured way.
  • Code with true semantic headers and resizable fonts.
  • Be mindful of color contrast.
  • Do not rely solely on images to convey the message.
  • Use alternative (alt) text for figures, photographs, illustrations, charts, graphs, and tables.
  • Provide an alternate plain-text version option.

Plain Writing Act of 2010 — This law requires that federal agencies use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Research shows that using plain language helps readers discern information more quickly, comprehend it better, and find it more useful.

  • Quickly engage readers, and provide explicit calls-to-action.
  • Replace jargon or complex words and phrases with simple, non-technical ones.
  • Write in the active voice.
  • Keep messages brief.
  • Use a friendly, but professional tone.
  • Use acronyms with caution, if at all.

Federal Records Act — By December 31, 2016, federal agencies will be required to manage permanent and temporary email records in an electronically-accessible format.

  • Collect emails in a central repository.
  • Prevent unauthorized access, modification, or deletion of collected records.
  • Ensure all collected records are retrievable and usable.
  • Capture and maintain required metadata.

Section 208 of the E-Government Act of 2002 — Agencies are required to describe how they handle information provided electronically to provide assurance that personal information is protected.

  • Conduct and make publicly available privacy impact assessments for electronic information systems and collections.
  • Provide privacy policies on websites that the public uses.
  • Translate these privacy policies into a standardized machine-readable format.
  • Provide annual reports to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on compliance with Section 208.

The above rules outline the minimum standards for what is deemed acceptable by law for federal departments and agencies to observe to protect their constituents. These may further vary by government level and jurisdiction, so I encourage you to become well-versed in the laws that direct your specific work.

Were any of these laws a surprise to you? Share your reactions in the comments.

Amber V Hammond is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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