Groups that market heavily via fax breathed a sigh of relief in mid-August when the Federal Communications Commission postponed until January 2005 hastily implemented and restrictive regulations regarding unsolicited fax transmissions. The regulation had been scheduled to go into effect August 25.

Tucked into legislation that established the National Do-Not-Call registry, the FCC amendment would require associations and businesses to seek the signed, written consent of any recipient before sending a commercial fax. Until now, the existence of an established business relationship was considered implicit permission to send such faxes.

The commission defined "commercial" as "any material advertising the commercial availability or quality of any property, goods, or services." Jeffrey S. Tenenbaum, a partner with the Washington law firm of Venerable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti, believes the rule would cover such items as membership applications and renewal forms, conference registration forms, responses to RFPs, hotel registration information, and more. Fines for violating the new regulations would range from $500 to $11,000 per fax.

Spearheading opposition to the new rules was the American Society of Association Executives, which rallied more than 1,400 organizations behind several petitions asking for clarification and postponement of the new rule. ASAE argued that the fax regulations would significantly impede marketing strategies and basic communications between associations and their own members. Many medical groups, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Dermatology, American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, and American Academy of Family Physicians, endorsed the petitions. Major business interests also backed a separate, similar petition. That overwhelming reaction undoubtedly factored heavily into the FCC’s decision to issue a stay of the new regulations.

The postponement is intended to give the FCC a chance to hear more discussion about the effects of the rule and to give organizations more time to solicit written approval from proposed fax recipients. But some question how realistic the latter goal is for a field such as medicine.

"Our members use faxes a lot, particularly when they are doing reminders such as ‘save the date,’" says Bruce Bellande, PhD, executive director of the Birmingham, Ala.–based Alliance for Continuing Medical Education. "Because our primary target audience is physicians, they’re probably highly unlikely to respond to it (a request for permission to send faxes) just because of the time. They probably figure, ‘if they can’t get it to my fax, they’ll get through another way.’"

Despite the wave of panic the pending rules set off among many fax-happy groups, the new rules flew in under the radar of many others. "We found a lot of our members were clueless," Bellande says. "So we’re trying to keep the issue in front of our members so no one is surprised."

Businesses and associations now have ample time to establish a fax-permissions game plan, although ASAE is hoping the FCC will change its mind. "We have 16 months now, and we’re fairly confident that we can get the language changed," says Chris Vest, an ASAE spokesman. The association also launched a grassroots effort to make members of Congress aware of the rules and their effects on organizations.

In the meantime, "we’re going to leave it up to our members to decide if they need to move forward with consent forms," Vest adds. A model consent form is available on ASAE’s Web Site www.asaenet.org.—Megan Rowe