Chapell & Associates

Monday, May 22, 2006

Activists challenge AOL's e-mail fees

Reuters - May 20, 2006
Four years ago, a small e-mail campaign saved a struggling coffee shop in Portland, Ore. Today proprietor Becky Bilyeu is among the thousands of people fighting to preserve the free flow of electronic mail. Bilyeu contacted the political advocacy group earlier this spring when she heard that Time Warner's AOL, the largest U.S. Internet service provider, planned to start charging for guaranteed delivery of certain types of bulk e-mail. The fee--a small fraction of a cent per e-mail--took effect two weeks ago. AOL says it will help stop spam, or junk messages, from clogging their customers' inboxes. But many say e-mail should move freely so that people can build and maintain large communities over the Web. Nearly 500 organizations, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Gun Owners of America, have joined together to create a coalition called

The Chapell View
This is very much like the Net Neutrality debate. For one thing, each side's argument is imperfect... but it's also similar because the Goodmail debate asks essentially the same question as the Net Neutrality debate -- does the ISP have the right to discriminate between Internet Traffic?

(Btw, I find it interesting that Yahoo's answer to this question as it pertains to Net Neutrality is "NO", while their answer to the same question regarding Goodmail would appear to be "YES!" more on this another day...)

As a privacy guy, I understand the benefits of creating an ecosystem where emailers need to consider the costs prior to hitting the send button. Most bulk emailers (even the 'reputable' brands) would rather just hit the send button rather than put together a comprehensive permissions management program. For one thing, it's MUCH easier. So in theory, charging emailers might make some of them think twice before hitting SEND - and that's probably not a bad thing.

And I'm pleased that Goodmail has decided to release their standards, although I'd encourage them to provide additional transparency regarding how their reputation scores are calculated. (I'd also like for them to demonstrate that they are actually certifying to those standards -- but that is a challenge faced by just about any business certification program.)

One thing that hasn't received a tremendous amount of press is this -- Goodmail fundamentally will change the relationship between large email sender and ISP. Under the current ecosystem, the large email sendards are beholden to the ISPs. After all, the large email senders won't make any money if their messages don't get through. And theISPss are fairly agnostic - their only master is their subscribers, and if you tick off enough of their subscribers, your messages get blocked.

However, Goodmail fundamentally changes that ecosystem. Once theISPss start deriving revenue from the delivery of emails, they become beholden to the large email senders. Does that mean that AOL and Yahoo! might give the benefit of the doubt to a large email sender that is paying them lots of money? I hope not, but it's certainly a fair question...

On the other hand....

I don't entirely embrace the argument that says "email should move freely so that people can build and maintain large communities over the Web. " I like that argument - again, in theory. It's nice to think about harnessing the power of the Internet to 'do good' in this world. But for every online community that's built upon making the world a better place (or providing Swedish doglovers a place to talk about pet products, or whatever) there are FORTY other groups who insist that their right of free speech includes the right to bug the hell out of me by polluting my inbox with stuff I don't want. Perhaps I'm throwing the baby out with the bathwater here, but I increasingly am left with the sense that the baby has been drowned a long time ago...
posted by Alan on Monday, May 22, 2006

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