What is CAN-SPAM?

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) is the federal government’s legislation that controls the sending of unsolicited commercial emails. The CAN-SPAM Act establishes specific requirements for commercial messages and most important, gives recipients the right to opt-out of spam-like emails.

Legal Requirements

The CAN-SPAM Act isn’t restricted to spam and to bulk email because it applies to all commercial messages. The law defines commercial messages as any electronic message containing commercial ads or promotions of commercial products or services. Once email recipients have communicated that they don’t want to receive any more messages, the business cannot sell or transfer their email addresses to another organization. There are no legal exceptions for business-to-business (B2B) emails. This means that all email messages to previous customers regarding new products and services must comply with this law.

Every single email violation of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties that go up to $16,000. The CAN-SPAM Act’s provisions and punishments are enforced through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The CAN-SPAM Act states that even if a company outsources their email marketing to a third-party provider, they are still legally responsible for compliance with the law. In fact, both companies may be held legally responsible.


In order to remain compliant, companies should avoid using false or misleading header information. This means that the domain name and email address must accurately identify the person or business who sent the message. Subject lines must accurately reflect the message’s content and the email message must be somehow identified as an advertisement. The email must identify the business location through a valid physical postal address. This can be a current street address, a registered post office box or a private mailbox registered to receive commercial mail under the U.S. Postal Service regulations.

Emails must inform and explain to recipients how to opt-out of receiving future emails. These instructions must be clear and concise. Ideally, opt-out and unsubscribe links should have a unique font size, color and location. Businesses should provide a return email address or an alternative online way for people to communicate that they want to opt-out. All opt-out requests must be able to be processed 30 days after receipt of the email. The opt-out request should be processed within 10 business days. Businesses cannot charge a processing fee or require the recipient to give personal identifying information outside of an email address.

CAN-SPAM Act Coverage

The CAN-SPAM Act focuses on the primary purpose of the electronic message. Emails may contain three standard types of information and primary purposes. First, commercial content that advertises or promotes products, services or website content used for commercial gain. Second, relationship or transactional message content regarding previously agreed-upon business transactions or information regarding an ongoing transaction, such as shipping updates. Third, non-commercial content that contains no transactional or relationship purpose.

If the email message only contains transactional or relationship content, it cannot contain any false or deceptive routing information. Transactional or relationship emails contain content that confirms or facilitates a business transaction originating from a customer. The email will provide safety, recall, warranty or security information about a product or service. The email may provide information about changes regarding terms, features, accounts, subscriptions or memberships.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act protects consumers from unsolicited spam and junk mail.

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