In order to send commercial emails to subscribers, email senders must comply with certain “opt-out” requirements. “Opt out” refers to the ability of an email recipient to unsubscribe, or remove his email address, from future marketing messages. Though this does not affect a transactional or service relationship between a consumer and a company that provides a product or service, email opt-out laws provide clear guidelines for marketers who advertise products or services.


In order to combat the rising problem of consumer spam, the Federal Trade Commission created the CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act of 2003. This act describes what email marketers must include in commercial messages and gives consumers the right to unsubscribe from mailings. The act also sets forth fines and penalties for non-compliance.

Opt-Out Requirements

A commercial email must include a valid unsubscribe, or opt-out, mechanism that works for 30 days. Email senders must comply with opt-out requests within 10 business days. The opt-out mechanism must not require more than an email address—in other words, email senders cannot require a password or a fee to unsubscribe from their messages.

Additional Content Requirements

A commercial email must include the name and mailing address of the sender. Email senders must use subject lines that clearly reflect the content of their messages—they cannot use subject lines to deceive recipients into opening their messages. Header information, including the “From” and “To” fields, must accurately identify the sender and intended recipient of the email. Senders must also disclose that their emails include advertisements.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

The Federal Trade Commission imposes a penalty of up to $16,000 per email found to be in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act. Senders who use others’ property, false information or other duplicitous tactics can face criminal penalties. Extreme cases may result in imprisonment.

Transactional Messages

Transactional, also known as relationship, messages refer to emails that describe an ongoing service relationship. Common examples of transactional emails include order status, account update, or invoice messages. As long as the primary purpose of the message is to update the consumer regarding a transaction or relationship, these messages do not require opt-out mechanisms under the CAN-SPAM Act. Transactional messages must still contain accurate header and routing information.