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Guidelines for the use of bulk email at Cambridge

Although the use of bulk email can on occasion be in the interests of the University, it can nevertheless present real problems and dangers.

Sending email to large numbers of people is often a part of University business. However, unless carefully used and managed, such mail can cause considerable annoyance. Complaints about unsolicited bulk email may lead to email from the University's addresses being blocked across parts of the internet, and in extreme cases the prosecution of the originator of unsolicited bulk messages and the University being sued for damages. The following guidelines are intended to assist members of the University who need to send bulk email achieve a balance between getting needed information to an appropriate audience and causing annoyance.

In particular, senders should be aware that:

  • Bulk email can cause problems to the underlying mechanisms and storage: a copy of a message sent to a mailing list can be kept for each recipient
  • Email is not immediate and messages sent to large lists can be slow
  • Irrelevant or inappropriate email, whether sent to individuals or mailing lists, interferes with work and often has a negative effect
  • Messages that are not sent in plain text are not readable by all recipients and will often be discarded

The unwarranted sending of bulk email may be treated as a breach of the Information Services Committee (ISC) guidelines on the Use and Misuse of Computing Facilities.

Terminology

  • Unsolicited email is mail that the individual did not request, irrespective of whether it is welcome.
  • Bulk email is essentially identical mail sent out to groups of above ~100 individuals, irrespective of whether this is done by repeated sendings or a single sending.
  • Mass bulk email is the same, but for greater than 1000 individuals.

Legal considerations

The collection of personal email addresses constitutes the handling of personal data and is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998. Advice should be sought from the University’s Data Protection Officer regarding compliance with the Act before email addresses are collected or used for the purpose of bulk mailing.

Members of the University should be aware that the legislative framework within England and Wales makes no separation between commercial and non-commercial activities when determining whether unsolicited email has been sent. Consequently the sending of bulk email, particularly if it could be construed as unsolicited, should be approached on the understanding that the terms of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 apply.

Under what circumstances is bulk email a bad idea?

Bulk unsolicited email is frequently counter-productive and can generate considerable annoyance. The utmost caution and reluctance should precede any emission of bulk email.

It is unacceptable to do anything likely to invite external retaliation (such as black-listing) against the University or any part thereof. It is therefore never acceptable to send bulk unsolicited email from the Cambridge University Data Network to external email addresses except in accordance with these Guidelines.

Even within the University it is normally unacceptable to send bulk unsolicited email unless there is reason to suppose that a substantial proportion of the recipients will be interested or need to know.

Although an individual may have implicitly agreed to receive certain bulk email by membership of a particular mailing list, or by virtue of a position they hold, caution is needed in any such presumption. Agreement to receive mail inappropriate to a list is never implied, and similarly appearance in some email directory such as the University’s lookup service does not imply assent.

It is unacceptable to send email in volumes that could overwhelm the underlying mechanisms, be this on account of the number of ultimate targets, volume of data transmitted, volume of data consequentially stored or anything else.

Electronic bulletin boards are frequently more appropriate than email and should be preferred wherever possible and reasonable.

Rules and guidelines that apply to ordinary individual or personal email apply at least as strongly to bulk email, strictures being the more significant on account of the size and generality of the audience. See the section on mail etiquette (http://www.ucs.cam.ac.uk/email/etiquette), and the ISC guidelines on the use and misuse of computing facilities at http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/committee/isss/rules/guidelines.html.

Under what circumstances may I send bulk email?

If it can be shown that a particular instance of bulk email is appropriate, notwithstanding the guidelines above, the following additional guidelines should be applied to the composition and transmission of email messages intended for bulk distribution.

  • The email should be legible on the most basic of equipment. It should not require recipients to use specialised software or hardware to read it. In particular it should be wholly in plain text and not encoded in any way and no part of it should be in a proprietary format. For example, it should not be assumed that all recipients can read MSWord files or HTML email messages.
  • The message should be short, perhaps a page at most.
  • If the object is to draw attention to bulkier material or material inherently in other formats, then references to this (e.g. URLs) can be included. This does not override the preceding two points.
  • The message as a whole should make it clear that it is a circular, and should make plain why it has been sent to the recipients.
  • Information contained in the email headers should be set to ensure that no replies are accidentally sent to the whole constituency. For example, the REPLY TO field should be set to an email address intended to be used for receiving replies to the message.
  • If the constituency is large it may well be appropriate to take special steps to minimize the logistical impact. It is always the responsibility of the sender to verify that the underlying systems can cope with what he or she wants to do.
  • Delivery failure reports must be acted upon. In each case the email address concerned must be removed from the mailing list, whether that is automatically or manually maintained.

The UIS provides a mailing list service for use by members of the University. Often the mailing list service is the best way to disseminate legitimate bulk email to members of the University. You may wish to consider using this service as a way of complying with the guidelines above. Further details of the mailing list service can be found at User-driven mailing lists.

These guidelines are further divided into two sections: