Protest Over AOL’s Pay-to-Send E-mail Plan

If politics makes strange bedfellows, “certified e-mail” is making a lot of disparate groups downright kinky. In case you haven’t heard, AOL plans to start an optional pay-per-e-mail program where they will charge companies a fraction of a penny or more for every e-mail message they send.

AOL claims this is an attempt to decrease the spam and identity fraud scams on the Internet. The idea is that large companies will be willing to pay to ensure that their e-mail reaches its intended destination. But other people point out that small businesses and non-profits may get squeezed out.

Recently groups from across the political spectrum — including the Gun Owners of America, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — joined together in a most-unlikely coalition to rise up against America Online’s (AOL) plan to charge for certain classes of e-mail.

“Under AOL’s recently announced proposal, large e-mailers willing to pay an ‘e-mail tax’ can bypass spam filters and get guaranteed access to people’s inboxes — with their messages having a preferential high-priority designation,” an EFF statement claims.

AOL does not see the proposal as a tax on e-mail users. In early February, the company said the goal is to guarantee certified bulk mailers a fee for free passage through AOL’s filters and other anti-spam devices.

AOL maintains the plan adds a “voluntary, additional layer of e-mail delivery” for assurance that the e-mail will be delivered. The company also adamantly insists that AOL will maintain it free e-mail service, along with the AOL Whitelist and Enhanced WhiteList.

In announcing the plan, AOL said it had already signed up the New York Times and the American Red Cross as customers for the new service. Yahoo is considering the same idea and, like AOL, maintains the idea will decrease the spam and identity fraud scams that plague the Internet.

“Companies can continue to send e-mail to Yahoo Mail users at no cost in exactly the same way they always have, and we are not planning to require payment to ensure delivery to our users,” said Yahoo spokesperson Karen Mahon. “In the coming months, Yahoo will test an optional certified e-mail program based on transactional messages only, such as bank statements and purchase receipts, as an additional layer of protection against scams and phishing attacks.”

The end results, though, the new coalition maintains, will be the same: “Charities, small businesses, civic organizing groups and even families with mailing lists will have no guarantee that their e-mail will be delivered unless they are willing to pay the ‘e-mail tax’ to AOL.”

While the EFF and Free Press are co-hosted a recent press teleconference, is the organizing force behind the movement. Last week, MoveOn e-mailed a petition to all of its three million members to rally support against the AOL proposal.

“AOL, don’t auction off preferential access to people’s inboxes to giant e-mailers, while leaving people’s friends, families and favorite causes wondering if their e-mails are being delivered at all,” the petition states.

“The Internet is a force for democracy and economic innovation only because it is open to all Internet users equally — we must not let it become an un-level playing field.”

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