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You’ve got (paid) mail

AMERICA ONLINE MAY BE THE country’s best-known, and most widely mocked, mass mailer. Every few months the company sends out thousands of promotional CDs, and shortly thereafter most of the shiny plastic discs make their way to nearby landfills -- unless they’re converted to beer coasters.

So it’s kind of funny that AOL is coming under fire these days for the way it plans to handle mass mailings online. At issue is the Time Warner subsidiary’s plan to create a priority lane for commercial e-mail. Starting later this month, companies can pay to be added to a certified e-mail delivery system run by an AOL contractor, Goodmail Systems. If they abide by Goodmail’s rules for e-mail etiquette, their messages will be delivered straight to AOL users’ inboxes, bypassing AOL’s spam filters.

More than 500 advocacy groups, businesses and charities have joined forces to protest the plan, calling it an “e-mail tax” that would coerce people into paying to send messages. They warn that the fees would create a two-tiered Internet: a reliable one for wealthy e-mailers and an unreliable one for everyone else. Critics worry that AOL would have more incentive to serve the e-mailers who paid than those who didn’t, eroding the qualities of freedom and openness that are vital to the Net. Lawmakers are also beginning to take note.

The protest overlooks the fact that AOL has to compete with thousands of other Internet providers. Whatever the company might make by charging e-mailers pales in comparison to the amount it collects from its subscribers, for whom free e-mail is an essential part of the $25.90 monthly package.

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The freedom and openness of the Net are already under assault from spammers, virus writers and phishers -- con artists who try to trick people into revealing Social Security numbers, passwords and other personal information. Most of these offenses are carried out through e-mail because it’s free, anonymous and tricky to authenticate.

Using a combination of technology and research, Goodmail vouches for the authenticity of both the companies that use its certified e-mail system and the messages they send. That gives banks, fundraisers and service providers a way to assure AOL customers that they are who they say they are. It doesn’t solve the phishing problem, but it can provide a measure of relief. Goodmail also says it will require companies to stop sending messages to people who say they don’t want to receive them.

Meanwhile, AOL has pledged to use its share of the money Goodmail collects to improve its spam filters. Critics complain that AOL’s filters catch too many legitimate messages; offloading some of the burden onto Goodmail will give the company more time to focus on making its filters work better.

The main drawback to AOL’s plan is that it offers mass marketers an easy way to evade spam filters. A better approach is Yahoo’s plan to use Goodmail only for “transactional” e-mails, such as messages confirming an online purchase. Even AOL’s system, though, will have to answer to the company’s subscribers. And if the Goodmail system turns out to be a font of unwanted sales pitches and fundraising pleas, those customers have plenty of other places to take their business.


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