It's never been easy to win a fight against people who buy ink by the barrel. The same may be true about those who buy bandwidth by the terabit -- as a coalition fighting Internet giant AOL discovered Thursday.
A group of 600 organizations that includes the AFL-CIO and the Gun Owners of America has been circulating an online petition protesting AOL's plans to begin charging extra to route e-mail around its spam filters.
On Thursday, though, the world's biggest Internet service provider blocked e-mails containing links to the petition against the "CertifiedEmail" plan at DearAOL.com.
AOL called it a simple technical glitch and fixed the problem by midafternoon. The company's critics denounced the blocking as censorship -- and said it supported their belief that Time Warner Inc.'s AOL and other Internet service providers manage e-mail haphazardly.
Either way, the incident illustrates the delicate balance between democracy and Internet gate-keeping. How do Internet service providers clamp down on spammers without hampering the grass-roots campaigns taking advantage of the medium's openness? And who hasn't had e-mail to a friend bounced back as spam?
"It's an example of our point: that they are arbitrary and capricious in the way they deliver e-mail," said Wes Boyd, president of online political group MoveOn.org Civic Action. "If AOL can just decide without consultation of anyone that they can censor a website, then what are the chances for democracy?"
AOL spokesman Nicholas J. Graham countered that the messages were diverted because of a software glitch that incorrectly labeled "a number of" websites as being related to spammers or scammers. As evidence of the company's good intentions, he said, the campaign had spread online since its February launch without interference from AOL.
"We've been accurately and responsibly delivering tens and tens of millions of e-mails containing that Web link, and we will continue to do so," he said.
Since the petition started, more than 350,000 people have signed it at DearAOL.com. The coalition behind the site wants AOL to reconsider CertifiedEmail, calling it an "e-mail tax" that would create a two-tiered e-mail system and give AOL less incentive to deliver regular messages whose senders didn't pay a premium.
"It shouldn't have to cost legitimate e-mail marketers and senders more to get past filters," said John Mozena, co-founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. "We've joked that AOL could become the Don Corleone of e-mail: 'Nice e-mail newsletter you've got going. It would be a shame if it got hurt by getting caught in our filters.' "
AOL's plan would offer ways for companies to bypass spam filters, for a fee. By forcing them to comply with certain rules, AOL contended, it could ensure the delivery of e-mail that its 19.5 million subscribers in the U.S. want and make it easier to block e-mail sent by spammers and con artists.
AOL said the program would help its customers. When they see the CertifiedEmail symbol on an e-mail purporting to be from PayPal, for example, they can be sure it really is from PayPal, not from online scammers hunting for personal information.
CertifiedEmail, operated by Goodmail Systems Inc., lets businesses send newsletters, receipts and other e-mail that consumers request. AOL said it would charge corporations a fraction of a cent per message, but let many nonprofits and activism groups participate for free.
"There will be no requirement, ever, for not-for-profits who deliver e-mail to AOL members, to pay for e-mail certification and delivery," AOL postmaster Charles Stiles said in March.
U.S. Internet giants have moved several times to reassure critics who have feared that the companies would favor their own content, for example, over that produced by others. Instances of unfair play have been rare.
But in Canada last year, phone company Telus admitted blocking subscriber access to a website run by its striking employee union. The site criticized Telus, but the company said it went too far by posting confidential information and recommending that customers jam the firm's phone lines.
And the AOL incident came as Congress mulls over whether to allow telephone and cable companies to charge premium fees to make sure Internet content such as downloadable movies and music are delivered quickly and reliably.
A business owner in Michigan first discovered Thursday's problem and alerted other members of the coalition, who sent test messages to their AOL-using friends and family. Messages without the DearAOL.com link went through. Messages with the link bounced.
The Times independently verified the coalition's claims with test e-mails to an AOL account.
"The fact of the matter is that AOL's system is far from perfect, and they do block information," said Timothy Karr, campaign director for Free Press, a national media reform organization involved in DearAOL.com. "Whether it's intentional or not is beside the point. We see this as censorship."
But others said AOL's critics should be grateful that Thursday's glitch boosted their cause.
"One shouldn't attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence," said Internet governance professor Jonathan Zittrain of Oxford University. Nonetheless, "to the extent that this campaign was about raising awareness, AOL has contributed greatly to that."