While it’s been public knowledge since October last year, plans by America Online Inc and Yahoo! Inc to introduce or test a two-tier email system, where companies can pay to have their messages bypass spam filters, is drawing fire this week.
AOL and Yahoo are both planning to implement a service from Goodmail Systems Inc whereby volume email marketers can pay by the email to ensure their messages reach their intended targets. AOL will call it CertifiedEmail.
This irks many bulk mailers, which claim the business model of charging by the message would put an onerous burden on their wallets. Even if it is optional, which it is, they may be forced to accept it in future, they say.
Others suggest the system could cause AOL users to die from cancer. Seriously.
When it’s not killing people, Goodmail has designed a PKI-like system for embedding cryptographic tokens into individual emails. A public-private key pair is used to verify that emails are legit, and recipients get a nice little icon saying AOL Certified.
To be able to use this system, email marketers have to license Goodmail’s software and subscribe to its service. It apparently costs between $2.50 and $10 for every email sent using the system. ISPs that implement the system get a revenue share.
Matt Moog, chief executive of Q Interactive Inc, a volume mailer that has clients including AmEx, eTrade, MasterCard, eBay and Wal-Mart, said the cost to emailers would be onerous. . . doubling the cost of sending email to consumers.
Tom Gillis, senior vice president at IronPort Systems Inc, said in a statement: Charging ‘marketers’ to send email is totally ineffective. It’s the spammers who have money, and this effectively ensures that spammers get to your inbox.
IronPort created the Bonded Sender program, sold off last year to Return Path Inc. Under Bonded Sender, bulk senders pay a bond and agree to conform to guidelines that ensure they are not a spammer.
Goodmail has a similar set of standards participants have to abide by, but they’re not as strong as Bonded Sender, under which double opt-in is the only acceptable form of customer consent. Goodmail only requires opt-in, with no confirmation.
We take significant steps to make sure the sender is legitimate and behaves appropriately, said Richard Gingras, chief executive of Goodmail. We only support permission-based messages to existing customers.
The Goodmail system tracks complaints against senders. If a sender crosses a certain statistical threshold for complaints, Goodmail has the right to withdraw service and block the mails.
The first overt objections to Goodmail working with AOL and Yahoo were raised by Eric Thomas, CEO of L-Soft, who developed the popular Listserv mailing list management software back in 1986.
The fundamental flaw in AOL’s new certification plan is that there is only one technology supplier, Thomas said in a statement last week. Coupled with AOL’s dominance in the marketplace, this creates a de facto monopoly.
Moog echoed this. What is important to us is that no one email service provider chooses any one authentication provider that would have total control over prices.
That argument begins to fall apart when you consider that Goodmail and rivals would only have to convince ISPs to implement the service. If there were competition, because it’s a revenue-sharing setup, the ISP stands to make more with the provider that charges marketers the most or offers the larger share.
True enough, Moog said, but only if you don’t accept the ISPs’ reasoning at face value. Are these things being put in place to make money for ISPs, or are they there to enable legitimate marketers to reach their customers? he said.
According to Gingras, ISPs, on average, pay $8 to $12 per user per month on email hygiene — spam filtering and such. He conceded that AOL and Yahoo, with their economies of scale, likely spend nowhere near that much.
It’s important to keep in mind that email really isn’t free, the costs are being born by the recipients, he said.
The story is getting a lot of airplay this week because the New York Times reported it at the weekend. Goodmail’s Gingras smells the hand of disgruntled volume mailers in getting the story pushed out.
That said, it appears that L-Soft was the only one to put out a press release on the subject over the last seven days, but it was quite an angry press release. It suggests that the Goodmail plan will cause people to die from cancer.
Quoting Gilles Frydman, president of the Association for Cancer Online Resources, it said: This is going to block every AOL subscriber suffering from any form of cancer from receiving potentially life-saving information they may not be able to get from any other source, simply because a non-profit like ACOR. . . cannot afford to pay the fee.
That’s an exaggeration. Implementing Goodmail would not be obligatory on email senders, of course, but it’s easy to see how it could reduce the ISP’s will to refine its spam filters to better deal with the problem of false positives.