Opt What?



Today someone informed me that a failing e-mail address reached by an automated process had been "opted out of future emails", and I realized that it has been more than a decade since I last took pen in hand to explain that words have meaning, and these words don't have that meaning, and what words we use cannot change what something is but can muddy our understanding of that "is".

Opt-out is, of course, spam. Always. This statement creates dissent from those who believe "spam is that which we do not send," which is almost everybody, and I invite all such bodies to use that dissent as a source of energy with which to reconsider the meaning and use of words. This is especially important regarding e-mail and other electronic communications because transmission of such is as addictive as any drug, and those who transmit will make up any and every excuse to continue.

"Opt" means "to make a choice" or to "decide in favour of something", and it refers to the first decision made on a topic. One does not "opt" one way and later "opt" another way. If someone opts for the vegetarian meal rather than the chicken or fish and then later revises this choice, we would say "opted for veggie but later changed her mind." We would not say "opted for fish".

If someone "opts in" to an automated communications stream such as commercial email, they could later "unsubscribe" but we would not say that they had also "opted out". So in context, if someone "opts out" this is the first decision they ever made regarding that stream – in other words they never opted in, they just got added to that stream against their will. If "opt out" occurred, then by definition spamming also occurred.

The meaning of words is such that "opt" only happens once, the first time someone makes a decision on some issue. For electronic mail, if that decision was "opt in" then there will be fully verified and still revocable evidence of that choice. If that decision was "opt out" then they are a victim of spam and the transmitter is a spammer who is addicted to spam and is using language confusingly in order to obscure the fact that they're a spammer.

My advice is don't say you performed an act like "opting" someone "out" of your e-mail stream, because only spammers ever do that. If you're removing an address from your e-mail distribution because that address is failing, then you are "removing it". Every relationship between some distribution list and some address on that distribution list is exactly one of "opt-in" or "opt-out", never both, and never changing.

All opt-out is spam. If you're not a spammer, don't use the verb "to opt-out" in connection with any of your activities. Now you know.

Paul Vixie
Founder/CEO Farsight Security (FSI), 2013-current
Founder/CEO Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS), 1996-2001

P.S. Similarly, don't ask me or anybody else to "unsubscribe" from an email distribution unless we actually did "subscribe". If you or anybody adds me to an email distribution without my consent and then offers to let me "unsubscribe" from that unilaterally imposed relationship, I won't do it, and neither should you or anybody else. That's "opt-out" behavior which is "spam" (always!) no matter what gas-lit word choices the spammer might make in this case. I literally cannot "unsubscribe" unless I have first, by my own conscious and deliberate effort, "subscribed". If you ask me to do the one thing when I know I have never done the other, you are a spammer and your spam will be filed, indexed, and used to defend myself against your future email which I will presume (unseen!) to be spam. My advice: choose carefully.