Paid e-mail plan raises the people's ire

AOL and Yahoo's plan to charge fees for messaging inspires righteous indignation -- but why?

If the ’60s has left any mark on following generations, it can still be found in high tech.

That seminal generation perceived, and held as its credo, the belief that ordinary people could change the course of American policy, and did, when we pulled out of Vietnam. Whether or not this is true is beyond my ability to know, but this perception is now commonly accepted.

It is that legacy that can be seen today in the spirited defense of open source, the fight not to put a sales tax on Internet e-commerce, or the allegiance of Apple consumers to the brand they still see as a counterculture icon.

Now the people are up in arms again.

AOL and Yahoo, it seems, want to offer a pay-per e-mail service: one-quarter cent per e-mail. The service, based on technology from Goodmail Systems, will do two things.

First, the two ISPs will be able to guarantee that companies’ e-mails will reach their destinations without being blocked by spam catchers.

Second, the system will also certify, for the benefit of the end-user, that a message claiming to be from a bank (for example) is authentic and not some phishing attack.

The coalition that organized to stop AOL and Yahoo from carrying out their plans is a unique mixture; it includes the Association of Cancer Online Resources, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, Gun Owners of America, and MoveOn.org.

During a phone-in press conference, one speaker after the next railed against the scheme. Some claimed it was an issue of the right to free speech. Others, like Timothy Karr, campaign director at Free Press, said, “It will destroy freedom and the flow of information.” What the plan’s opponents also fear is a two-tier system of haves and have-nots. Those who can’t afford good service will end up with poor service or no service.

I spoke with Richard Gingras, the co-founder of Goodmail. What Goodmail actually does is authenticate and then certify with an encrypted token each e-mail as being a legitimate e-mail from the company it says it is from.

Because the technology routes certified e-mails around the ISPs’ spam catchers, those opposed believe the ISPs might block messages from companies unwilling to pay the “tax.”

When business interests are unprincipled, I call it as I see it. I did so with Yahoo in this column last September. But this time I don’t see it that way.

At the risk of getting more hate mail than I can handle, I have to say that the Goodmail service is a good idea for the enterprise, and it won’t harm the consumer.

The service is opt-in by the recipient. This will not allow spammers to pay AOL or Yahoo to gain access to your inbox.

Yes, I suppose that if AOL, Goodmail, and Yahoo all went over to the dark side this could happen, but it’s unlikely that an ISP like AOL would risk angering its 18 million subscribers.

If, over time, consumers can be convinced to trust their e-mail messages, it will facilitate commerce and dramatically reduce customer-service costs for the enterprise.

Pay-per e-mail is one solution toward making e-mail a useful business-to-consumer tool. As such, it will not go away -- not even if -- in a show of power -- the people gather around AOL HQ and try to levitate the building.

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