Should the Internet Play Favorites?

Buying a Way Into Your Inbox

illustration: money
Illustration: Harry Campbell
In a move seen as yet another threat to Internet neutrality, America Online and Yahoo say they'll charge bulk e-mailers for guaranteed delivery of their messages to AOL and Yahoo inboxes.

The companies will use the third-party e-mail accreditation system called Goodmail CertifiedEmail to allow bulk e-mail to bypass their own filters, which typically block some 80 percent of junk mail before it enters an ISP's network.

Because CertifiedEmail would be visually distinguished as approved mail, order transactions, newsletters, and marketing messages would neither be mistaken by recipients as spam or identity theft ploys nor be accidentally blocked by an ISP's e-mail filter, says AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham. Yahoo says it will use the Goodmail program only for transactional messages, such as bank statements and receipts.

An 'E-Mail Tax'?

Many in the Internet community give the plan a resounding thumbs-down. Fifty nonprofits, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Gun Owners of America, MoveOn.org Civil Action, and the Association of Cancer Online Resources, are pressuring AOL to quash what they call the "e-mail tax."

Critics insist that charging for access to inboxes could hurt small businesses and Internet retailers who can't afford to pay the fees. "Those who did not pay would increasingly be left behind with unreliable service," says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. For nonparticipants, the existing get-past-the-spam-filters game would continue.

Goodmail charges bulk e-mailers $2 to $3 per 1000 messages and claims to do background checks on its clients. Analysts say the system will have no measurable impact on cutting down spam volumes and will confuse recipients.

Tom Spring

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