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How does the CAN-SPAM Act influence your inbox or email marketing strategy? This overview breaks down the essentials of compliance, the impact on commercial email practices, and the penalties for non-compliance. For businesses dedicated to mastering the nuances of CAN-SPAM compliance and steering clear of penalties, this article serves as a resource to clarify the complexities of CAN-SPAM regulations in 2024.

Key Takeaways

  • CAN-SPAM Compliance: Familiarize yourself with the rules including the use of opt-out links and honest subject lines.
  • Avoiding Fines: Stay penalty-free by promptly processing opt-outs, accurately describing email content, and following all the requirements of CAN-SPAM.
  • Email Definitions: Understand the difference between unsolicited and opt-in emails as defined by CAN-SPAM.
  • Marketing Best Practices: Create trustworthy communications with transparent subject lines and an easy opt-out process.

Understanding the CAN-SPAM Act

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM) of 2003 is a law that safeguards the consumer’s inbox by setting rules for sending commercial email. Under the oversight of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Act defines commercial email messages as any email primarily aimed at the advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service. Its implementation allows businesses to engage in email marketing without prior consent from recipients, provided they adhere to guidelines such as honoring opt-out requests and maintaining transparency about the sender’s identity.

The primary objective of the CAN-SPAM Act is to protect consumers from the influx of unsolicited commercial emails while striking a balance that permits businesses to market to potential and current customers through email. By setting the framework for consumer privacy rights related to email marketing, the law enforces compliance with standardized regulations allowing consumers to control the amount of unsolicited emails they receive across desktop and mobile services. The regulation includes a set of clear requirements: senders must use honest and accurate subject lines, provide a valid physical postal address, and an evident and accessible opt-out mechanism (an unsubscribe link), laying the foundation of a transparent and trust-building approach to email marketing.

Understanding Unsolicited Commercial Emails

CAN-SPAM Act on a computer

Unsolicited commercial emails, sometimes associated with the term ‘spam’, must meet specific requirements under the CAN-SPAM Act. Among other requirements, these emails must:

  • Clearly indicate that they are advertisements
  • Provide accurate header information
  • Use truthful subject lines
  • Include a clear opt-out mechanism and opt-out requests must be processed and honored promptly

It’s important to note that certain ‘transactional’ or ‘relationship’ emails can be sent to the customer without the requirement of an opt-out method via an unsubscribe link. Be sure you fully understand the difference between marketing/commercial and transactional emails to stay compliant, while also giving your recipients the information they need. The FTC defines the primary purpose of a transactional or relationship email as consisting only of content that:

  • Facilitates, completes, or confirms a commercial transaction that the recipient already has agreed to;
  • Gives warranty, recall, safety, or security information about a product or service the recipient bought;
  • Notifies the recipient about a change in the terms or features of a membership, subscription, account, loan, or other ongoing commercial relationship; notifies the recipient of a change in their standing with respect to that ongoing commercial relationship; or provides regular, periodic account balance information to the recipient;
  • Provides information about an employment relationship or employee benefits; or
  • Delivers goods or services as part of a transaction that the recipient already has agreed to.

The FTC urges caution to never assume that any message sent to recipients with whom you have an ongoing business relationship is automatically transactional in nature. It is common for business email to mix both commercial/marketing and transactional or relationship content in the same message. If an email contains both types of content, the primary purpose of the email becomes the key to determining if the email would be deemed a commercial message or a transactional message. So, it is critical to carefully review the five criteria above before hitting send on that next business email. For more information from the FTC on how to identify commercial vs. transactional or relationship emails, visit CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business, which is regularly updated (most recently in 2023 with a smaller update in January 2024).

Fully Understanding Opt-Out Requests

While the Act does not impose an opt-in requirement for sending marketing emails, it does mandate the incorporation of a clear and conspicuous opt-out or unsubscribe mechanism in these communications.

An unsubscribe or opt-out mechanism should:

  • Be prominently displayed
  • Be easy to use
  • Clearly explain the process for opting out
  • Remain active for at least 30 days after sending the email

Additionally, you must honor an unsubscribe request from an email within 10 business days as per regulations previously stated. Current industry-standard practice is to provide an opt-out link as the preferred opt-out method. 

Avoiding Penalties: Best Practices for Compliance

With a clear understanding of the CAN-SPAM Act and its impact on commercial emails, we can now explore the optimal practices for ensuring compliance with this law. By following these guidelines, businesses can ensure they are adhering to the law, protecting consumers, and avoiding potential penalties. Among other requirements, these best practices involve creating transparent subject lines and implementing the previously mentioned easy-to-use opt-out mechanism.

It is also necessary to include a valid physical postal address in every commercial email, giving the recipient confidence that the email is from a legitimate source.

Creating Honest and Accurate Subject Lines

The use of misleading subject lines in commercial emails is forbidden by the CAN-SPAM Act. This means that the subject line must accurately represent the contents of the email and not mislead the recipient in any way. This requirement helps ensure recipients can make informed decisions about whether to open and engage with the email.

If you would like more tips on how to create engaging and compliant subject lines, check out our most recent article on the subject here. (Insert Link Here)

Implementing an Opt-Out Mechanism

The CAN-SPAM Act requires the implementation of an opt-out mechanism in every commercial email. This mechanism should be easy to use and must clearly explain how the recipient can opt out of receiving future marketing emails. Specifically, it requires “that your email allows recipients an opt-out method”. While the specific form of Opt-Out method is not defined, the industry standard in use today is an Opt-Out or Unsubscribe Link.

Any Opt-Out mechanism used by the sender/advertiser must be capable of processing Opt-Out requests for at least 30 days after a specific commercial email campaign is sent (i.e. the Opt-Out Link must remain active and continue accepting opt-out requests for at least 30 days following the date of mailing).

Once an Opt-Out request is received, The CAN-SPAM Act gives the sender/advertiser 10 business days to stop sending commercial email to the requestor’s email address. This does not mean that if you have a customer’s email address on your file, that you can’t send them the ‘transactional or relationship’ emails previously covered. But, you can no longer send them any marketing/advertising-related (commercial) emails. Opt-Out requests do not expire and must be honored in perpetuity – unless the same recipient specifically opts in to receive commercial emails from you again in the future.

Additionally, honoring Opt-Out requests extends to any 3rd parties that may be mailing on an advertiser’s behalf (affiliate marketers, performance agencies, channel partners, etc.). If a user opts out of an email campaign sent on an advertiser’s behalf, the advertiser must honor that request, as well as all other 3rd parties that may be sending out marketing email for the advertiser. So, if a consumer opts out of receiving an advertiser’s offer sent by partner number 1 (out of 100 email partners), the advertiser and all its other 99 email partners must honor that request. 

Similarly, it is not permissible for a company to sell or transfer the email addresses of recipients who opt-out of receiving marketing emails from the company, even in the form of a mailing list, unless the transfer of the addresses is for the purposes of assisting another entity to comply with the law.

An opt-out mechanism is required for your email compliance and for building trust with your recipients. It demonstrates respect for your recipients’ preferences and time, and it can also help to improve the quality of your email list by ensuring that you are only sending emails to individuals who are genuinely interested in your content. 

If you need help implementing and managing unsubscribe links and Opt-Out requests, OPTIZMO is the recognized leader in the email and online marketing space for email suppression list management, email campaign management, data management, and risk mitigation services relative to email compliance. 


Complying with the CAN-SPAM Act is not just about avoiding penalties; it’s also about building trust with your recipients and protecting their rights. By understanding the requirements of the Act, implementing best practices, and knowing the difference between commercial/marketing and transactional or relationship emails, businesses can ensure their email marketing is both effective and compliant.

The CAN-SPAM Act has set the standard for commercial emails, and understanding its guidelines is crucial for any business engaging in email marketing. Remember, it’s not just about sending emails; it’s about sending the right emails in the right way.

Legal Disclaimer

Nothing in this text should be construed as legal advice. We highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the various information sources regarding CAN-SPAM on the FTC website. Additionally, you may choose to obtain professional legal advice regarding your company’s email compliance efforts, related to CAN-SPAM or other relevant regulations that impact email marketing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does CAN-SPAM stand for?

CAN-SPAM stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing. It’s a law that sets rules for commercial emails and messages sent to U.S. citizens and includes penalties for noncompliance.

Is CAN-SPAM still in effect?

Yes, CAN-SPAM is still in effect as of 2024 and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Email marketers need to adhere to its rules to avoid fines and maintain the trust of recipients.

Who does the CAN-SPAM Act apply to?

The CAN-SPAM Act applies to all commercial electronic mail messages, which are defined as any message promoting a commercial product or service, regardless of the recipient being a consumer or a business.

What are the penalties for violating the CAN-SPAM Act?

Violating the CAN-SPAM Act can result in penalties of up to $51,744 per email, with no maximum limit, imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Aggravated violations may lead to even higher penalties.

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