Political Rivals Unite Against Paid E-Mail Plan

SAN FRANCISCO -- The two sides of the U.S. political spectrum have found an issue to unite them: free e-mail.

A group of nonprofit organizations and small businesses will announce next Tuesday the formation of a coalition aimed at putting a stop to America Online and Yahoo's plans to charge fees to mass e-mailers. The coalition, expected to be launched at a press event in New York, will be sponsored by the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, and it will include two political adversaries: the liberal MoveOn.org and conservative RightMarch.com political action committees.

"We have been putting together a rather large coalition of groups from across the spectrum," said Cindy Cohn, legal director with the EFF. "They are mainly nonprofit or political groups or small-business concerns.... They're all people who can't afford to pay to get their message across."

Want Plan Dropped

The coalition wants the two Internet giants to abandon plans to adopt an e-mail certification system developed by Goodmail Systems that could relegate some e-mail to second-class status, Cohn said.

"I think they need to abandon this plan," said Cohn. "The ISPs' view that they can auction off preferred access to my e-mail box is really wrong.... It's not the ISPs' to sell."

AOL and Yahoo first signed on to use Goodmail's CertifiedEmail service last October, but the service has come under scrutiny as the two companies have come closer to deploying it. With CertifiedEmail, senders would agree not to send unsolicited e-mail. They would pay a fee of between one-fourth of a U.S. cent and 1 cent in order for their messages to receive preferential treatment in AOL and Yahoo in-boxes.

AOL is expected to begin using the service "in the next month," and it will be available to Yahoo users "shortly thereafter," a Goodmail spokesperson said.

Free Exchange of Ideas in Danger?

Earlier this week, two of the coalition members--political action committees MoveOn.org and RightMarch.com--argued that the bulk e-mailer fees would ultimately harm the free exchange of ideas.

"The very existence of online civic participation and the free Internet as we know it are under attack by America Online," wrote the liberal MoveOn.org in its alert, sent out to members Wednesday.

MoveOn.org has started an online petition calling for AOL to abandon the service.

AOL has no intention of backing away from CertifiedEmail, which will be rolled out within 30 days, according to AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham. Like the U.S. Postal Service's Priority Mail, the service simply gives customers another choice in how to send and receive messages, he said. "We are absolutely intent on using this as an additional tool to protect the sanctity of the e-mail experience for our members."

Graham had no comment on EFF's coalition, saying that it would be inappropriate to comment on it before its unveiling. "The only coalition we care about ... is our users," he said.

E-Mail Opposition

The conservative RightMarch.com, which was formed in response to MoveOn.org's 2003 "Virtual March on Washington," this week called on its members to contact AOL and Yahoo headquarters, "demanding that they abandon their plans for a 'pay-to-speak' system."

"We spend thousands of dollars a month on e-mail delivery services to make sure all of our members receive our alerts. And very soon, thanks to AOL and Yahoo, we might not be able to afford sending them," said the RightMarch.com alert.

By Thursday, RightMarch.com members had sent more than 28,000 e-mail messages opposing the Goodmail service, said RightMarch.com president William Greene.

Goodmail Responds

Critics like Greene and the EFF are ignoring the consumer benefits that CertifiedEmail provides by assuring recipients that their e-mail messages are legitimate, said Goodmail chief executive officer Richard Gingras. "It's a very important service that e-mail needs today," he said. AOL and Yahoo have made similar claims in the past.

Goodmail plans to introduce a new pricing plan for nonprofits that wish to use the service, Gingras said.

Gingras would not say what this new service will cost, but organizations like RightMarch.com are concerned about any new e-mail costs.

RightMarch.com sends between 2 million and 3 million e-mail messages per week, and one-third of its members use AOL or Yahoo e-mail addresses, said RightMarch.com's Greene.

Juan Carlos Perez of IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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