Below is a copy of a statement made available to the public by George Smith, Executive Director for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. This article is in response to the concerns of sportsmen whose email addresses were obtained by SAM through Maine’s Freedom of Access Act law. Following this letter, please find my response.
Email Address Purchase Explanation
By George Smith
January 28, 2010
I am disappointed, discouraged, and yes, a bit angry at the way the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has handled SAM’s purchase of the department’s list of email addresses. Here’s the whole unvarnished story.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) was enacted to bring transparency to our government. I believe secrets have no place in state government and everything state employees know, we should know.
Nearly all information gathered by or created by state agencies is available to the public, from research reports to draft policies to databases. The State of Maine FOAA website (www.maine.gov/foaa/) explains this law and the process required to request information. FOAA requests are received regularly at DIF&W and other agencies and are routinely processed.
SAM was a charter member of Maine’s Freedom of Information Coalition, and I served on the Coalition’s board of directors for several years. SAM remains an active member of the Coalition.
The Coalition has been working, inside and outside the legislature, on FOAA issues including questions about what if any information deserves protection in this new technological age. I do not believe email addresses will ever be protected, any more than mailing addresses have been, but we’ll see.
Every state agency is required to abide by the FOAA. DIF&W has provided information on its licensees for decades to all who asked, including political parties and candidates, businesses, and nonprofits. Included in the information DIF&W provides are your name, address, and licenses purchased.
When you get those “Dear Sportsmen” letters from political candidates, where do you think they got your name and address? DIF&W, of course.
The department is allowed to charge a fee equal to the cost of providing the requested information. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. In my experience, if they are happy to provide the information and it suits their purposes, there is no charge. If they are unhappy about your request, you will pay. SAM paid $1500 for the list of email addresses.
It is important to remember that the law already protects information we all consider private such as our Social Security and credit card numbers. Please understand that such protected private information was NEVER the subject of SAM’s FOAA request for email addresses.
No lawsuit or other legal action was taken to procure the list. The Attorney General’s staff merely advised DIF&W that the list was subject to FOAA. Your email address possessed by DIF&W has always been available to the public. SAM’s purchase changed nothing in that regard and set no new precedent.
For many years I have been purchasing DIF&W’s entire list of licensees including names and mailing addresses. The list served as a principle means of prospecting for new SAM members and allowed us to send our messages to the entire constituency of sportsmen. But as the costs of mailings increased, we were forced to reduce those mailings.
As I began to receive DIF&W’s emailed messages myself, it occurred to me that their email addresses would give SAM a new and inexpensive way to communicate with sportsmen. My initial plan was to email our new SAM E-News. We are already using the email addresses of SAM members for this purpose and decided to extend this effort to all sportsmen who could be reached by email.
The first time we email a message to DIF&W’s list, we intend to give recipients the opportunity to opt out of future messages from SAM.
There are many sources of email addresses (and that’s one reason we get so much unsolicited email including SPAM). I chose DIF&W because its list is a perfect constituency of those SAM wants to reach.
A private company, InforMe, is the state’s database vendor. DIF&W’s email list is managed by InforMe and the department’s emailed messages are sent by another private company, Constant Contact. So I asked InforMe to sell DIF&W’s list of email addresses to SAM. My first request was sent in March of 2009.
InforMe refused my request. So I turned to DIF&W for help. After another refusal, I asked the Attorney General’s staff for help.
After receiving the Attorney General’s guidance, DIF&W sold SAM the list of email addresses.
I have had to utilize the FOAA many times. It always surprises me when a state agency refuses my request for information, because they receive training in FOAA. I have been refused a document that a DIF&W leader was reading from, draft policies, and more. I have taken to submitting most of my requests to DIF&W for information using FOAA, because it simply is quicker than waiting to find out if they are willing to give me the information without a FOAA request.
Here’s a good example of the problems we have encountered. Last fall, after SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee spent more than a decade encouraging DIF&W to adopt a comprehensive policy for the management of salmonids, John Boland, DIF&W’s Fisheries Director and a person I respect and work closely with, informed me that he had put a new salmonid policy on the Commissioner’s desk.
I emailed Commissioner Dan Martin, asking for a copy of the policy. He refused, saying he would not provide the policy until he had read and approved it. He had no right to withhold that policy and I asked the Attorney General to intervene on my behalf. I received the policy the next day.
Senator David Trahan and I used FOAA recently to obtain information about logging in deeryards that were supposed to be protected. We currently are awaiting information in response to a FOAA by Senator Trahan concerning the saltwater fishing license, information we hope will help us defeat the license proposal.
DIF&W’s emailed message
The message DIF&W emailed to its customers about SAM’s purchase of email addresses was unfortunate and incomplete. By taking their message to the media and 100,000 customers, the department assured that many more requests for the list would be received. They didn’t need to do this.
Never before have they chosen to inform licensees when their names and addresses and other information was sold.
SAM has asked the department to send another message, fully explaining this matter, including an accounting of those who have purchased information about licensees in the past, and making sure you understand that the information you provide when purchasing a license is available to the public. Legislators have also suggested that DIF&W post a similar notice on its website. That would be a good idea for all state agencies.
While SAM did nothing wrong in obtaining information that is available to anyone, we regret the discomfort this has caused those we serve. We hope you find our action understandable, and if you happen to receive emailed information from SAM, you will find it useful and important.
I would like to say that I have never thought that the emails were obtained illegally. As a matter of fact, in the one article I wrote about SAM procuring the emails, I addressed the issue as one of extremely bad public relations.
We live in an electronic age. With the rapid growth of the Internet, lack of knowledge can set businesses and organizations back in their progress as was the case for SAM. On the same token, knowledge can advance their cause. They now need to mend some fences and get with the times. The days of “stealing” email addresses to send unsolicited information is not only outdated but is extremely bad business. SAM needs to become cutting edge in this regard.
Smith’s article is forthcoming and appears to be accurate from the information I have been privy to. There is somewhat a need to explain SAM’s legal approach in obtaining the emails because I have listened to some sportsmen wrongly accuse both the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and SAM for illegally giving or getting these emails.
Setting the legalities aside, there are two issues Smith talks of that I would like to address. First is his explanation about how SAM has used FOAA requests in the past to get information. The examples Smith gives are good examples of what the FOAA was intended to do. It is about transparency in government, not the legal ability to buy a list of emails for the purpose of sending and/or soliciting information to unwanted recipients, legal or not. It is understandable that from a “legal” perspective, emails and even personal mailing addresses would be included in FOAA because the politicians who made the law want access to that information for their own selfish desires.
The example Smith uses to explain some of SAM’s past uses of FOAA is a far cry from using FOAA to obtain email addresses.
Whether it’s legal or not misses the bus. It’s simply bad public relations and poor business. Is it really worth angering a few dozen people in hopes of getting one to read your propaganda? Which brings us to my second issue. Just because it is legal to go out and obtain emails doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best method of accomplishing a goal. Smith hints that if MDIFW hadn’t sent out an email warning those email holders what had happened, that sportsmen would not have known and no harm, no foul. I think this is a bit of a case of burying your head in the sand.
People don’t like SPAM and they don’t like junk mail that clutters their mailboxes and fills up our landfills. It’s unwanted, it’s rude and a poor business practice. To believe that by forcing information into someone’s email box with an explanation that an opt out function will be included in the first email, is about as good as receiving an unsolicited item in the mail that says if you don’t send it back you’ll have to pay for it.
As I explained before, SAM now has fences to mend and I offered steps I think they should take. They have explained their side of the story but I don’t believe that’s good enough. This is not an apology. It’s an attempt to release SAM from any legal wrongdoing and in the last sentence Smith exclaims, “we regret the discomfort this has caused those we serve”. It seems he is sorry SAM has angered a lot of people but all indications this isn’t going to stop them from their appointed task. He then goes on to ask readers to have an understanding and he hopes they enjoy the information they will be receiving through email.
“You’ve got mail!”