Will email reputation services fulfill their promise of helping people catch spam and cut down on false positives, or will they create a “taxed” two-tier email system where big-money marketers have access to in-boxes while the rest of us languish in spam folders?
That question may be a tad hyperbolic, but the argument is starting to be framed along those lines. Electronic rights activists have started lobbying more heavily against recent moves by US email service providers to implement paid-for email white-lists.
Yesterday, a collection of non-profit organizations, led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, launched DearAOL.com, a petition site where people can demand that America Online changes its decision to implement a white-list service from GoodMail Systems Inc.
We’re very good at spotting long-term consequences, EFF’s Danny O’Brien said. When we first saw AOL’s email tax alarm bells started ringing… The primary concern is that this would give a perverse incentive to AOL, it would reward AOL financially for degrading free email.
It’s not really a tax, of course, but the word tax grabs headlines (see above). GoodMail operates a system whereby companies that send out a lot of email can pass a few reputation tests then pay a volume-based fee for a guarantee that their email will not be blocked by spam filters.
GoodMail’s reputation threshold and its fees are likely high enough that spammers will not be able to slip through the cracks. However, it is not designed to actually stop spam either.
The folk behind DearAOL, which prominently includes Democratic lobby MoveOn.org, Gun Owners of America, the Association of Cancer Online Resources, the Free Press and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (though not, it appears, Craiglist itself), think GoodMail will lead to a slippery slope.
[AOL and other ISPs] will naturally tend to go towards what brings them revenue, O’Brien said. They can spend money to keep their regular spam filters up to date but they can make money by neglecting spam filters and pushing more senders to pay for guaranteed delivery.
While AOL points out that if it provides a rubbish email service, it will simply lose customers, the concern from DearAOL’s signatories is that once one or two major ISPs say it’s okay to charge people for guaranteed delivery, everyone will want a piece of the action, and things will descend from there.
ACOR’s Gilles Frydman, whose organization sends hundreds of thousands of emails containing medical information to cancer sufferers, said: Have you ever seen a service where the free one is equal to the paying one? … Why would corporation pay for a service that they can equally get for free?
EFF’s O’Brien said that GoodMail had indicated it was ready to offer a free trial of GoodMail certification to non-profits. We have also learned that Habeas Inc, a GoodMail competitor, plans to announce free white-listing for registered non-profits this Thursday.
That will not stop DearAOL’s participants, who say they’re sticking up for the little guy too. Some of the participants in yesterday’s conference call indicated that they would be prepared to organize a boycott of AOL if the GoodMail service goes live.
With that in mind, there’s a reasonable chance that they will be successful. Also, AOL claims the revenue it would get from GoodMail will be more or less negligible, and would be reinvested in spam filtering. If that’s true, dropping the service would be a small sacrifice.
From all this, the question of whether the promised wave of reputation and trust services we’ve been hearing about will actually occur.
The RSA Conference trade show a couple weeks back was characterized by, if anything, a great deal of talk about trust networks that build on notions of federated identity, authentication, and reputation.
Microsoft, for example, is working with SSL certificate vendors like VeriSign and GeoTrust on high assurance standards that will tell web users when a web site is definitely trustworthy. With just a little stretch of the imagination, it could be said to be the web equivalent of GoodMail.
The crossover is happening already. Just yesterday, VeriSign announced a deal with Habeas whereby Habeas, which offers a GoodMail-like service, will use presence on VeriSign’s Verified Domains List, essentially a list of VeriSign’s SSL cert customers, as one criterion among about 80 for deciding whether an email marketer is trustworthy.
But, for now, it seems that the opponents of the AOL-GoodMail deal are sticking to a narrow course. They have not included Yahoo! Inc in its campaign so far, even though Yahoo has tentatively indicated it may test GoodMail’s service too.
And DearAOL’s members are focused on the economics of GoodMail, which charges based on the volume of email sent. That’s why they never launched an attack on Bonded Sender, which was implemented at Hotmail last year and charges a flat fee for certification.