the email tax: an internet myth soon to become true 02.28.2006, 9:58 PM
posted by ray cha
After years as an Internet urban myth, the email tax appears to be close at hand. The New York TImes reports that AOL and Yahoo have partnered with startup Goodmail to start offering guaranteed delivery of mass email to organizations for a fee. Organizations with large email lists can pay to have their email go directly to AOL and Yahoo customers' inboxes, bypassing spam filters. Goodmail claims that they will offer discounts to non-profits.
Moveon.org and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have joined together to create an alliance of nonprofit and public interest organizations to protest AOL's plans. They argue that this two-tiered system will create an economic incentive to decrease investment into AOL's spam filtering in order to encourage mass emailers to use the pay-to-deliver service. They have created an online petition called dearaol.com for people to request that AOL stop these plans. A similar protest to Yahoo who intends to launch this service after AOL is being planned as well. The alliance has created unusual bedfellows, including Gun Owners of America, AFL-CIO, Humane Society of United States and Human Rights Campaign, who are resisting the pressure to use this service.
Part of the leveling power of email is that the marginal cost of another email is effectively zero. By perverting this feature of email, smaller businesses, non-profits, and individuals will once again be put at a disadvantage to large affluent firms. Further, this service will do nothing to reduce spam, rather it is designed to help mass emailers. An AOL spokesman, Nicholas Graham is quoted as saying AOL will earn revenue akin to a "lemonade stand" which further questions by AOL would pursue this plan in the first place. Although the only affected parties will initially be AOL and Yahoo users, it sets a very dangerous precedent that goes against the democratizing spirit of the Internet and digital information.
Jason Pettus on March 1, 2006 1:11 PM:
And of course, there's the much simpler and more powerful way to let your opinion be known; simply stop being an AOL customer. The company can scoff at and ignore customer protests all they want; but if they don't actually have any customers, they'll be *forced* to listen to what people are saying, or go out of business altogether. I encourage all of you AOL customers out there to register your complaint in the quietest and most effective way of all - simply cancel your account.
Andrew on March 1, 2006 9:23 PM:
This for-fee preferred e-mail delivery is a non-issue. If people start finding lots of unfiltered spam in their inboxes, they can abandon Yahoo and AOL in favor of Gmail or whatever other webmail company promises to filter out the spam. All it takes is one sympathetic parent scandalized by the 20 penis-englargment spams in her 12-year-old's inbox to scuttle the whole misguided venture.
Besides, spam is spam. If a good-guy non-profit sends you something you've asked for, it goes to your inbox---now, and in the world of Goodmail. If a good-guy non-profit sends you spam, it goes to your spam folder. And if a bad-guy spammer pays for preferential treatment, you flip the bird at Yahoo and AOL for lowering the value of their service.
Is that too obvious? Am I missing something?
ray cha on March 1, 2006 11:48 PM:
I agree with the points raised by both Jason and Andrew. People can move to other free services.
As for spam being spam, the concern is that the service creates an economic incentive for AOL not to improve its spam filtering. In that, if AOL's spam filtering quality falters, more "good/ desired" mass emails will go to the spam bin, which encourages mass emailers to start paying for the Goodmail service.
Also, Goodmail's service is only available to vetted companies, which is a whole other issue. For example, one of the criteria to join the service is that the organization needs to located in the US or Canada.
Yes, these plans are misguided and there are easy ways around it. My concern is with the precedent it starts. This may be a small, initial attempt to move away from the spirit of network neutrality. It is important to tell the telecommunication industry in a direct and vocal way that these are bad ideas, because they will only try to push for bigger, harder to avoid tiered pricing structures with each victory.
Andrew on March 2, 2006 10:08 AM:
"As for spam being spam, the concern is that the service creates an economic incentive for AOL not to improve its spam filtering. In that, if AOL's spam filtering quality falters, more "good/ desired" mass emails will go to the spam bin, which encourages mass emailers to start paying for the Goodmail service."
Ah, then maybe I misunderstand how spam filters work. I thought they checked incoming e-mails 1) against a list of known spammer domain names and 2) against a list of commonly used words in spam, blocking the spam if those words break a threshold percentage of all words in the e-mail. (When my company, a publisher, sends out mass e-mails that are wanted by their recipients, we nevertheless need to use a program that scans our e-mail beforehand and tells us if how many specific words will be flagged by spam filters--if there are too many, we have to rewrite portions of the e-mail.)
But if, as you suggest, spam filters flag e-mails simply by virtue of their "mass"iveness, that indeed could pose a big problem for e-mailers in the age of Goodmail. Everyone from publishers like my company to aunts who want to send out their annual Christmas update letter.
I'm just not sure how filter works in that regard.
Andrew on March 2, 2006 10:11 AM:
"Everyone [add: would be affected] from publishers like my company to aunts who want to send out their annual Christmas update letter."
ray cha on March 2, 2006 10:39 AM:
Andrew, I'm not an expert on spam filtering but here is more on what I do know. For some time now, spam filters red flag emails with long cc lists as possible spam.
But it seems to be the "build a better mousetrap" situation. Spammers are always looking for new ways to outwit the filters. For example, spoofing the sender address, manipulating words and spellings, or dynamically changing subject lines are newer strategies. Therefore it is important that ISP maintain their efforts to block spam.