AOL Starts the Shake-Down

It looks like AOL, rather than proudly announce their Certified Mail service, have flipped the switch on the sly instead. AOL users on Friday were left scratching their heads at a new message on their AOL mail clients. "AOL Certified Mail", it announced, over a paid-for email message, "Authenticated For Your Protection".

And so much for the claim that the pay-to-send messages would be limited to vital, wanted mail like bank statements and airline confirmations. The first pay-to-send mailout to be so important as to bypass AOL's spam filters: an Overstock.com one-day promotion.

Now, there's nothing wrong with commercial mass mail - and Overstock has every right to email those who paid the $29.95 to join their Club-O promotion.

But even with this first "authenticated email" AOL has demonstrated that there is no direct correlation between exceptionally important or wanted email and email whose senders have the cash to pay ISPs to deliver it. Paid-for emails are not going to be more welcomed by their recipients than thousands of other causes who aren't looking to take in money, or charge their customers to receive news of one day promotions.

And what of those other mails? Two years ago, Richard Gingras, the CEO of Goodmail, the service providing AOL's system, said that pay-to-send would encourage ISPs "to tighten spam filters", since his system would "further prevent false positives" (false positives are valid email that is misfiled as spam.)

But Goodmail doesn't help ensure that non-spam gets delivered. It makes sure that email that is paid for gets delivered, and those plainly are not the same thing.

So if Mr. Gingras is right, and AOL "tightens" its spam filters because of Goodmail, we can see what will happen. Paying companies like Overstock.com will get their messages through - but noncommercial, non-paying email will be left to get caught in what the Wall Street Journal already calls spam filters gone wild.

Without a word, AOL has now begun to allow large companies to skip those filters. And just as when AOL quietly started dropping emails that even mentioned DearAOL.com, and just as when it quietly from reaching AOL subscribers, AOL users were the last to know of their mail provider's actions.

Control over your spam filtering, and control over your mailbox should lie with you alone. Nobody should have the power to rent out access to your inbox without your permission or your knowledge.

AOL's silence in rolling out their pay-to-send system is deafening.

AOL Censors Email Tax Opponents

Proves DearAOL.com Coalition Correct:  AOL Cannot Be Trusted To Put The Free and Open Internet Above Its Own Self-Interest

AOL is blocking delivery to AOL customers of all emails that include a link to www.DearAOL.com.  Today, after this was discovered, over 150 people who signed a petition to AOL tried sending messages to their AOL-using friends, and received a bounceback message informing them that their email "failed permanently." 

"This proves the DearAOL.com Coalition's point entirely: Left to their own devices, AOL will always put its own self interest ahead of the public interest in a free and open Internet," said Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, a national, nonpartisan organization working on media reform and Internet policy issues. "AOL wants us to believe they won't hurt free email when their pay-to-send system is up and running. But if AOL is willing to censor the flow of information now to silence their critics, how could anyone trust that they will preserve the free and open internet down the road? Their days of saying 'trust us' are over -- their credibility is gone."

While AOL may imply that censoring www.DearAOL.com is part of some anti-spam effort, their own customers are witnessing how faulty AOL's spam measures would be if that was the case. "I forwarded to my own AOL account and it was censored.  Apparently I can't even tell myself about it," said one AOL customer, Kelly from Massachusetts.

After reports of undelivered email started rolling in to the DearAOL.com Coalition, MoveOn co-founder Wes Boyd decided to see for himself if it was true. "I tried to email my brother-in-law about DearAOL.com and AOL sent me a response as if he had disappeared," said Boyd. "But when I sent him an email without the DearAOL.com link, it went right through."

"The fact is, ISPs like AOL commonly make these kinds of arbitrary decisions -- silently banning huge swathes of legitimate mail on the flimsiest of reasons -- every day, and no-one hears about it," said Danny O'Brien, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "AOL's planned CertifiedEmail system would let them profit from this power by offering to charge legitimate mailers to bypass these malfunctioning filters."

The Silicon Valley-based San Jose Mercury News recently warned that AOL's pay-to-send proposal "is likely to work as an incentive for AOL to move as many senders as possible to the paid system...The temptation would be to neglect the free e-mail system, whose reliability would decline. Eventually, everyone would migrate to the fee-based system. There would be no way around the AOL tollbooth."

AOL email tax supporter debunks AOL claim that "nothing will change"

On Friday's New York Times op-ed page , AOL email tax supporter Esther Dyson revealed the truth: AOL's proposed email tax will lead to a world where sending email is no longer free -- and she likes it that way. 

Her column was called "You've Got Goodmail." Goodmail is the vendor that would implement AOL's pay-to-send proposal, and would share hundreds of millions in profits with AOL from the email tax.

Dyson wrote:

"Goodmail has been met with a barrage of criticism and calls for a de facto boycott from several nonprofit and public interest groups. These organizations seem to think that all Internet mail must always be free, just because it was free before. ...Of course, the critics say, this is the first step. Pretty soon all mail will cost money, and then the free, open world of the Internet will be closed to poor people, nonprofits and other good guys, while multinational conglomerates fill their ever-growing pockets. I agree that pretty soon sending most e-mail will cost money, but I think that's only right."

Dyson's acknowledgement undermines AOL's PR scheme for its pay-to-send proposal, which centers on convincing the public that their email tax is "voluntary" and "nothing will change" for everyday emailers. AOL recently  went so far as to say that after their email tax is implemented, ultimately "Consumers pay nothing. Zero. Nada."    

The Silicon Valley-based San Jose Mercury News initially dealt a blow  to this claim with an editorial saying "separate, unequal systems" would develop from AOL's email tax. It explained, "The temptation would be to neglect the free e-mail system, whose reliability would decline. Eventually, everyone would migrate to the fee-based system. There would be no way around the AOL tollbooth."

On Friday, AOL's claims were again called into question--this time by AOL's own supporter, Dyson, who said that AOL's pay-to-send scheme is a significant step toward a world where "most e-mail will cost money" -- which she calls "only right."

Does AOL's proposed pay-to-send world sound like the Internet you think is "right"?  Tell AOL what you think. (Post a comment and feel free to give AOL a call: 703 265 1000.)

AOL: You've Got Questions...

AOL is trying to spin their email plans so hard they are now beginning to sweat. But after two weeks of AOL giving the public myth after myth about their pay-to-send proposal, accountability is on its way!

Yesterday, AOL was informed  that the California State Senate will be holding official hearings on AOL's pay-to-send scheme. AOL wants to let commercial bulk-emailers pay to bypass AOL spam filters and get guaranteed delivery to people's inboxes, while leaving all regular senders with increasingly unreliable email delivery.

Below, I ask you to give your opinions about what California state senators should ask AOL. After all, AOL can't wait to answer.

"We look forward to providing [State Senator] Florez with the true facts," responded AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham, best known for saying cancer patients  and the 500 organizations who are part of the DearAOL.com Coalition are "reminiscent of the bar scene in the first 'Star Wars' movie."

Graham has also shown great strength in his mastery of the "facts"--telling the public that the hundreds of millions of dollars AOL would gain by selling access to their customers' inboxes was "about as much of a revenue stream as setting up a lemonade stand on the corner." Obviously, the AOL cafeteria has instituted a heavy tax on lemonade too. 

It will be fun to see AOL respond "factually" at the hearing to the Silicon Valley-based San Jose Mercury News, which said AOL's pay-to-send proposal would likely result in, "an incentive for AOL to move as many senders as possible to the paid system...the temptation would be to neglect the free e-mail system, whose reliability would decline."

It will also be fun to see AOL respond to the fact that many nonprofits, charities, small businesses, political organizers, and small community groups like knitting clubs, biker clubs, or neighborhood mailing lists could see the reliability of their email delivery decline under AOL's proposal. If they don't pay the email tax, they get left behind.

The DearAOL.com Coalition will send your questions to California state senators before they question AOL at the hearings. What questions do you think they should ask AOL?

Now we're over 500

I've just added almost five hundred new groups to our coalition. It's been somewhat of a humbling experience, frankly: I've never really thought about what a vast range of groups depend on email to keep in touch and do their work. From bikers' newsletters, to book exchanges, to rotary clubs, all human life is there. It certainly feels like "America Online", even if it's not necessarily just AOL members (although there are a lot of AOL members there too -- around 20%-25% of most mailing list addresses end in aol.com.)

If your group would like to join, there are instructions here. And if you have any suggestions for groups we should reach out to, feel free to add them in the comments here.

AOL Admits Defeat in War on Spam

By Timothy Karr of Free Press

Cumulatively, these groups count more than 3 million AOL subscribers as members, or in excess of 15 percent of AOL's customer base.

While the organizations occupy almost every corner of the political landscape, we're united in opposition to AOL's plan to make large group e-mailers pay to bypass the email company's Swiss cheese spam filters and get guaranteed delivery to the inboxes of AOL customers.

AOL's Spam on Spam

AOL's pay-to-send plan is the latest media snake-oil scheme, designed to give users the impression of improved service while serving no one but the company’s bottom line.

In fact, the AOL pay-to-send plan could make spam worse. As AOL turns its attention to revenue generating email it has a cash inducement to let its free-to-send service grow increasingly unreliable.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham presents his company's new regime as a boon to end-users, stating -- misleadingly -- that a certification system will protect user inboxes from spam. This isn't true. AOL subscribers will receive certified email in addition to the regular traffic that clutters most inboxes.

"We continue to provide exceptional service to all email senders who conform to our antispam guidelines," Graham writes in a rebuttal to our campaign. "In fact, CertifiedEmail serves as a valuable, new standard and threshold for the delivery of legitimate email that will serve as a guidepost for other email senders to follow and adhere to."

Nice try, Nicholas. AOL hasn't solved the spam problem at all; they've merely created a second tier for delivery, one favoring those who can afford to pay AOL's express rate. The other tier -- which has been increasingly compromised by AOL's inability to distinguish honest email from spam -- will remain in place. It may get worse, even, as AOL tries to "incentivise" more users to move from the free lane to their toll road.

The Façade of Good Intentions

You would think that AOL could better spend its time and energy improving the existing spam filters. Apparently not.

According to Andrew Lochart of the email service provider Postini, AOL's effort "badly misses the mark" because it will lead to more spam in user inboxes. "It guarantees delivery of paid-for bulk email based on the sender paying, not based on users' preferences," Lochart told Red Herring. "In other words, it will allow more, not less, unwanted email through to users."

David Hughes chief executive officer of email security company Reflexion Network Solutions, said AOL's proposal "violates the democratic principles of the Internet and many people will see this as a transparent attempt to develop a new revenue stream despite the company's façade of good intentions."

In truth, AOL is attempting to profit from its own incompetence. By adopting the pay-to-send plan, AOL is declaring defeat in the war against spam. But instead of waving a white flag, AOL has asked legitimate senders to pay for its failure by buying an easy pass to users' in-boxes.

Where's the benefit in that?

But that's just the half of it.

As I mentioned earlier today, AOL's email tax is one salvo in a two-pronged assault on a free and open Internet. On the one hand, we have large cable and telephone companies that are now seeking to become the gatekeepers to Internet content and services. (for more on this visit NetFreedomNow.org. On this front we have large email providers that want to turn email communications into a privileged realm for those who can afford to pay a corporate tax.

These are the first steps onto a slippery slope that could dismantle the net freedoms that Americans have come to know. These types of corporate schemes discriminate against those of us who use the Internet to spread new ideas and spark innovation and dissent.

Reversing the Revolution

The Internet has evolved to be the most democratic medium in the history of communications – more accessible even than Gutenberg’s press. At its core is its ability to level the playing field for all comers.

The brilliance of this end-to-end network is that the intelligence resides at the edge of the network; the wires in between simply pass information between individual users. Those who run the network’s only job is to move data — not to stifle user innovation by selecting which users to privilege with higher speeds and "guaranteed" delivery.

If corporations like AOL get their way today, they’ll stifle the spread of independent ideas that we've come to expect online and shift the digital revolution into reverse.

Sometimes one can be a bit too snappy with the sound-bites. Nicholas Graham, AOL's spokesman started off the day with this line to an AP reporter about our anti-tax coalition:

"There is no substantive news here, just because some disparate groups of advocates have come together for an event reminiscent of the bar scene in the first 'Star Wars' movie."

Sadly for Nicholas' analogy, the AP reporter immediately went on to talk to one of those "disparate groups of advocates": Gilles Frydman of the Association of Cancer Online Resources.

"We cannot pay for the service, we don't have the money," Frydman said. "We have been doing this for 11 years based on the standards of Internet communication. Those standards do not include paying for service. This one company is trying to transform unilaterally how the Internet works."

For those of you who don't know, Gilles' organization is a non-profit dedicated to bringing support and credible information to thousands of cancer sufferers across the world, mostly through discussion and mailing lists. Last week, they delivered nearly two million messages to subscribers, fostering dialog between cancer patients, family members, researchers and physicians.

ACOR is part of our coalition. Gilles himself was one of the pioneers of using email, and works hard with organizations like AOL to improve deliverability, because with ACOR, a single missed email can be profoundly important.

What AOL forgets is that Gilles' members are AOL members too. And that's true for everyone in our coalition. Most large voluntary associations have 20% or more aol.com email addresses among their membership. Not only are our members the people that pay for AOL, they pay AOL specifically to be put in touch with groups like Gilles. AOL's email tax is an artificial tollbooth, interrupting that conversation.

(Oh, and another thing: the Cantina isn't in the first Star Wars film - everyone knows it's in the fourth. Wow, AOL: get that sort of thing wrong on the Net, and you're sure to get mail.)