AOL Unfazed by Paid-Email Criticism

America Online says it plans to begin offering a new pay-to-send email system to customers within the next 30 days, despite growing criticism from a diverse group of organizations claiming AOL’s plan amounts to a de-facto “email tax.”

AOL plans to launch the system, run by Goodmail, through which advertisers and other senders would pay a fee (from roughly ¼ to 1 cent per message) to guarantee their messages will successfully reach AOL subscribers. Paid messages would bypass AOL’s spam filtering technologies and arrive in users’ mailboxes certified as legitimate. Yahoo is also planning to institute a similar service via Goodmail for transactional messages (such as account statements, policy notifications, and receipts) in “the coming months,” although AOL will be the first out of the gate.

However, the system is drawing mounting criticism from an increasingly diverse range of organizations, who claim the system will end up blocking legitimate mail from groups which can’t afford to pay AOL’s delivery fee. Political action group has mounted a campaign against the move, which, although not yet calling for an outright boycott of AOL, openly says a boycott campaign is a possibility. The group has launched a Web site, carrying what amounts to an open letter to AOL protesting the pay-per-message deliver plan, and listing supporters as diverse as the AFL-CIO, computer book publisher Tim O’Reilly, the United Farm Workers, Oxfam America, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Gun Owners of America.

Some advertisers and businesses who use email to communicate with their customers argue the service would help users discriminate between legitimate communications and fraudulent messages like phishing schemes. For its part, AOL contends nothing will change for mailers who do not buy into the new system: their mail will be subject to spam and junk mail filtering it always has been.

However, some senders think AOL’s new system may further irritate AOL users. AOL has not made any claims about auditing the email practices of the organizations using the new system (through Goodmail has published some criteria, including fee structures, policy requirements, with enforcement largely managed by “reputation scores”). In “certifying” email, AOL is in no way saying the sender follows ethical email practices, merely that the sender was accredited by Goodmail. To ordinary users, the only meaningful distinction between everyday spam and AOL’s certified email might be that they can’t expect AOL to do anything to make the “certified” messages go away.

[Updated 01-Mar-2006 to link to GoodMail’s program qualifications, detail Yahoo’s stated intentions, and correct two typographical errors.]