Wednesday, February 08, 2006

You got (paid) email

From an opinion piece in the GJ Sentinel:
Some egalitarian Internet users are upset with the plans by AOL and Yahoo. They worry that paying for levels of service will create different classes of users.

Free e-mail is one of the most amazing benefits of the Internet, and no one wants to see that lost. But AOL and Yahoo are not proposing to limit e-mail access. They are simply offering commercial users the chance to buy a service to guarantee delivery of their e-mail to customers along with a tag saying it is a paid message.

I am not sure that anyone would ever call me egalitarian and, with all due respect to the author (who is not listed), he either doesn't understand how this works or doesn't understand the complaint and the reason that this may turn into a bit of a war.

I don't care what Yahoo! does with their FREE email service. AOL email accounts are not, by definition, free. Yahoo! also hosts commercial email accounts for some ISPs for users that are paying and those accounts should be treated like AOL accounts.

Now, I will pick on the Sentinel for no particular reason other than they ran the piece. I assume the Sentinel has a service for their regular readers that they send out the daily highlights in the news. I subscribe to several such services. If, accidentally, a few emails from the Sentinel get tagged by the spam filters and they wish to pay AOL to make sure that doesn't happen.... fine.

What I suspect is going to happen, and this is the concern among email professionals, is something slightly but importantly different. AOL will look at the statistics and determine the top 100 senders to their customers from commercial domains. They will contact those folks and ask them to purchase their new service. Over time those who don't buy the service will find that all the mail from them to their AOL subscribers is marked as spam and never reaches the target user. They will then move down the list with some criteria for minimum traffic. At some point, the Sentinel will HAVE to pay for the service to get to the largest base of commercial email accounts in the US.

One could argue that this would all be free market forces. One would be an idiot, but it could be argued. AOL users pay for, among other things, an Internet email account. If AOL intentionally prevents said customer from corresponding with legal commercial entities of their choice with said account, then it isn't any longer an Internet email account. The Internet is all about open communication.

To my knowledge neither AOL or Yahoo! have explicitly stated that this is what they are going to do. To understand why I think they will you need only understand that the false positive rate on commercial spam filters is a tiny fraction of a percent. Class of service issues can only ensue if AOL puts punitive rate limits on their legitimate commercial senders which is considered bad form. Why would the Sentinel pay AOL to bypass the spam filter for a service they offer to their users for free? AOL doesn't launch things they don't intend to make money on. To make money they have to get a bunch of commercial senders to pay by making it painful or impossible for commercial senders to reach their AOL users.

There is another alternative scenario where this makes sense. Sophisticated spammers might pay a small fee to be able to send unsolicited ads to some AOL users. The problem with this option is that AOL tells their customers that they make the spam go away. If their customer base figures out that they are getting spam with not only the blessing of AOL but because AOL is pocketing a buck on it.... well, let's just say we have seen ISPs hemorrhage users for less stupid moves.

Anybody got an option #3 where AOL makes money on this? I don't. I don't think AOL is dumb enough to try option #2, so option #1 is my only explanation.

If I am correct we will know soon enough. Some bank or newspaper or listserv service will be hit up for protection money and scream bloody murder about it. I am not sure this will cost AOL many users. It is a gamble as it might cost them dearly. I have complete confidence that there is some large scale commercial sender that will refuse to pay and will somehow inform it's users that they are prohibited by AOL from sending requested information to AOL customers.


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