You're gonna pay for what?
Oh God, no
You've got good mail
Businesses are fuming over AOL's plan to charge for sending e-mail to its users. But if it cuts spam and guarantees delivery, what's the problem?
By Farhad Manjoo
Over the years, firms with an interest in maintaining e-mail -- especially ISPs such as AOL -- have devised various technical methods to address some of the frustrations associated with the system's openness. The main methods are lists and filters: AOL, for instance, maintains an enormous "whitelist" of e-mail senders whom it has determined are good guys; a similar "blacklist" of bad guys; and a sophisticated anti-spam filter that makes educated -- but frequently erroneous -- guesses about which messages may be from spammers, phishers and other tricksters.
None of these technological methods quite solves the problem of fraudulent e-mail, says Richard Gingras of Goodmail. Gingras, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur, says he's been thinking of ways to fix e-mail for more than two years. In developing this plan, he says he spoke to people across the industry: executives at ISPs, people at standards groups, and engineers who understand the problems with e-mail. (Full disclosure: While serving as an executive at Apple in the mid-'90s, Gingras helped secure seed-money funding for Salon.) After researching all that ails e-mail, Gingras says he concluded "there is no way to provide true authenticity of messaging with simple bits of technology -- the only way we can do that is with business processes." When he says "business processes," Gingras is talking about human beings. The only way to make sure that a company that wants to send out bulk e-mail has good intentions is for people, rather than computers, to vet its aims. That process takes money -- which is where Goodmail comes in.
If a firm wants to send certified e-mail to AOL users, it must first apply for accreditation through Goodmail. Gingras says Goodmail will scrutinize companies that apply to make sure they're "highly qualified" and are not identity thieves. Companies must also prove that they have an established relationship with AOL users. So the only way a firm might send you a "certified" message touting its new remedy for your unfortunately minuscule penis is if you've previously told the company that you'd be interested in hearing about its various pumps, pills or exercise regimens. In addition, Goodmail would monitor e-mailers to make sure they're not upsetting users. If a certified sender generates a large number of complaints from AOL users or violates Goodmail's terms in other ways, the company would be dropped from the program. The fees the companies pay, which would be shared between Goodmail and AOL, would pay for this sophisticated accreditation system, though Gingras adds that the company would offer steep discounts for nonprofits that want to send certified e-mail.
Many of AOL's critics acknowledge that the AOL program wouldn't ruin e-mail immediately. "The Goodmail approach hits a lot of good points, and it's definitely a sincere attempt to do something to improve e-mail," says Danny O'Brien, the activism coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups opposed to certified e-mail. "The real thing that Goodmail comes close to providing is some sort of authentication -- you can see this as a notarizing system, and in theory we aren't opposed to that." But while the plan may have its advantages, it sets up a host of incentives that can only lead to the long-term degradation of free e-mail, O'Brien and others say. AOL would let its spam-fighting and anti-phishing efforts languish, the criticis say, making it harder for legitimate messages from groups -- groups like MoveOn, or the EFF, or Gun Owners of America -- who don't pay to get through to AOL users. Increasingly, they fear, you'd need to pay AOL to talk to its members.
The source of the problem, say critics, is that AOL will get a slice of Goodmail's income for scrutinizing senders -- and AOL's motivations for managing e-mail will always be financial. After the plan is implemented, if some organization -- whether a for-profit company or a nonprofit advocacy group -- has trouble getting its free e-mail to AOL users, AOL would face a choice about what to do about the problem. AOL could ask its systems administrators to look into the issue -- a process that requires it to spend some money -- or it could tell the sender to sign up for certified e-mail. In one scenario, AOL spends money to keep e-mail working for the sender, and in the other it makes money. Which would you choose?
In working the customer service desk for Craigslist, Newmark often speaks to people who fight e-mail abuse at ISPs, including AOL. "The consensus there is what they really need are more resources dedicated to their existing tools and departments going after the bad guys," he says. The Goodmail system would divert those resources, Newmark fears. As Gilles Frydman, of the Association of Cancer Online Resources, puts it: "Have you ever seen a provider offer a better free service than a paid one?" Frydman adds that his organization, which sends out millions of messages over listservs with advice on how patients should deal with cancer diagnoses, has saved lives using free e-mail; under AOL's plan, he says, people could suffer and die because they may not receive important messages in a faulty, free e-mail system.
But Gingras says that people who think that AOL's certified e-mail program will damage free e-mail are overlooking one important factor: competition. If AOL users notice that their e-mail service is deteriorating -- if many messages from groups they care about are ending up in the spam folder because the sender didn't pay a delivery fee -- they'll switch to another e-mail system. In other words, AOL's got a great incentive to keep its free e-mail system working well -- it would lose customers if it didn't do so. Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for AOL, concurred, and insisted that AOL would not reduce the resources it invests in free e-mail once it starts offering certified e-mail.
Still, AOL's critics don't have much faith in the notion that competition from other mail systems will keep AOL's free e-mail system working well. For one thing, says Pariser of MoveOn, it isn't clear that AOL's users would notice that their free e-mail service is falling apart. They may not see that messages from groups they care about are going to the spam folder -- after all, who looks in the spam folder?
More important, AOL's plan, critics say, will prompt others to use systems like Goodmail. Yahoo, which has attempted to distance itself from the controversy over AOL's plans, will also start using Goodmail's system soon, though only for a small class of e-mail that it terms "transactional," meaning messages like bank statements or receipts, rather than straightforward sales pitches. If AOL begins to make money from the program, other ISPs will also start charging people to send e-mail -- they too would want to get on the gravy train.
"AOL is saying that if they go too far, people can switch," Green, of MoveOn, notes. "But no, they can't, because then Yahoo falls into line, and then Gmail, and then others, and the net effect is that those who can pay to send e-mail win, and those who want to start with a small idea and turn it into a big idea don't."
This certainly could happen. But if e-mail does become as tamped-down as Green worries it will, there will almost certainly be a market in offering an e-mail system in which free e-mail works really well. Thousands of companies provide e-mail service to people online today; any number of them could stake out an advantage in offering good quality free e-mail.
And the fact is, as Gingras points out, free e-mail today doesn't work well and something needs to be done about it. Frydman worries that, under AOL's plan, his groups' messages could end up in the spam folder. But that happens already; messages from his group that use the word "breast" have been erroneously caught by filters. Under the Goodmail plan, Frydman's group could, for a small fee, make sure that all its messages get through to people who need them. So, like paying the U.S. Postal Service extra to certify an important letter, perhaps paying a small sum to make sure your lifesaving e-mail message surfaces in the flood of spam isn't such a bad idea.
This is idiocy.
Because it proves the author is no better a tech reporter than politics reporter.
The problem is that the people Goodmail accepts will mostly be spammers. They have every reason to pay fractions of a penny to get their mail through, and it denigrates the value of free e-mail for large corporations.
Why do they want to pay AOL anything?
See, the problem isn't you and me, but GM. They do not want to pay anyone a dime to send an e-mail. And that is where the opposition will come in. AOL wants to make money from e-mail because it is losing money everywhere else, but the idea this is anything more but a spammers tax is crazy.
posted by Steve @ 9:35:00 AM