Political rivals unite against giants' e-mail plan

Nonprofits and SMBs form coalition to stop plans to charge fees to mass e-mailers

Both sides of the U.S. political spectrum have found an issue to unite them: Free e-mail.

Next Tuesday, a group of nonprofit organizations and small businesses will announce the formation of a coalition aimed at putting a stop to America OnlineĀ (AOL) 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 digital rights advocacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and it will include two political adversaries: the liberal MoveOn.org and the 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."

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 ISP's to sell."

Yahoo and AOL 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 agree not to send unsolicited e-mail. They pay a fee of between one-fourth of a U.S. cent and one 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 spokeswoman said.

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. (http://civic.moveon.org/emailtax/)

AOL has no intention of backing away from CertifiedEmail, which will be rolled out within 30 days, according to AOL spokesman 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.

The conservative RightMarch.com, which was formed in response to MoveOn.org's 2003 "Virtual March on Washington", on Wednesday called on its members to contact Yahoo and AOL 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. (http://capwiz.com/sicminc/issues/alert/?alertid=8503681&type=CU)

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

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. Yahoo and AOL have made similar claims in the past.

Gingras said that while some nonprofit organizations like the American Red Cross have seen CertifiedEmail as an important tool in preventing fraud, no one will be forced to use it. "This is an optional service," he said. "Certified e-mail is not something that every volume sender needs to use."

Nonetheless, Goodmail plans to introduce a new pricing plan for nonprofits who 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 Yahoo or AOL e-mail addresses, said RightMarch.com's Greene.

Concern that it would suddenly have to pay for all of those messages prompted the organization to join the EFF coalition, Greene said. "We're just a grassroots-based organization; we don't have any big funders," he said. "This is a huge issue for us."

Green admitted that it was unusual to see both his group and MoveOn.org united on an issue. "It's one of those dogs and cats living together kind of things," he said.

MoveOn.org is also a coalition member, according to MoveOn.org Executive Director Eli Pariser.

Cohn from EFF could not reveal how many members had joined the effort to date, but she said that next week's announcement would feature a diverse group. "It's going to be not only right and left, but up, down, every way you go," she said.

(Juan Perez in Miami contributed to this story)

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