Frequently Asked Questions FAQ the Email Tax

What's this controversy all about?

AOL has proposed the adoption of a system called CertifiedEmail, provided by Goodmail Systems. Under this pay-to-send system, affluent mass-emailers who are willing to pay AOL the equivalent of an "email tax" would get to bypass AOL's spam filters and get guaranteed delivery to the inboxes of AOL customers.

Everyone who can't afford to pay AOL's "email tax" - including charities, small businesses, civic organizations, and even families with mailing lists - will have no guarantee that their emails will be delivered. If other companies follow AOL in adopting pay-to-send systems, the Internet will become permanently divided into two classes of users - those who can afford to pay for guaranteed delivery and everyone else left behind with unreliable service.

Though billed in the media as an anti-spam and anti-phishing measure, AOL's pay-to-send system will fail on both scores.

AOL's "email tax" will cause great harm to the free and open Internet that many of us take for granted. The Internet is a revolutionary force for free speech, civic organizing, and economic innovation specifically because it is open and accessible to all Internet users. With a free and open Internet, small ideas can become big ideas overnight. AOL's move to introduce a pay-to-send system is a danger to this openness, and we urge them to reconsider.

Who are you, and what are you doing?

We're a broad coalition of both conservative and progressive political groups, charities, nonprofits, small businesses, labor unions, and Internet advocacy organizations and experts. Our coalition is diverse, but we are united in asking AOL to keep the Internet free by dropping its "email tax" proposal. We encourage AOL to explore with us open standards and systems that will more effectively fight spam and phishing without causing dangerous side-effects to the Net.

The full list of our membership is on our Open Letter to AOL, located on the front page of this website, www.dearaol.com. Signatories include Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, the Association of Online Cancer Resources, the U.S. Humane Society, Oxfam America, MoveOn.org Civic Action, Gun Owners of America, the Democratic National Committee, RightMarch.com, the AFL-CIO, Free Press, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

With combined memberships of over 15 million people, our diverse coalition will run a campaign to educate the public (including AOL users) about the dangers of AOL's email tax to the free and open Internet.

Other individuals and groups can join us by signing our open letter. We'll keep you informed of the issue as it progresses.

What is CertifiedEmail?

CertifiedEmail is a pay-to-send system that allows mass-emailers to pay AOL the equivalent of an "email tax" to bypass AOL's spam filters and get guaranteed delivery to the inboxes of AOL customers. This is appealing to some email senders who don't want to risk their emails being classified as spam. CertifiedEmail will also be displayed in AOL inboxes with a small "trusted" symbol, and it will leave intact links and images that may be weeded out of non-paid emails.

To send CertifiedEmail, mailers would pay AOL and Goodmail an estimated 1/4 of a cent to a penny for every message sent to every email address on the mailing list-equaling thousands of dollars for email messages sent to large lists.

How will AOL's "email tax" hurt those who don't pay to send email?

Perversely, AOL's pay-to-send system would actually reward AOL financially for degrading free email for regular customers.

Right now, AOL has a financial incentive to maintain spam filters for all of its customers. If AOL finds out that a spam filter is incorrectly blocking emails from a legitimate business, charity, non-profit, community group, or family email list, it makes good business sense to work with that group to fix the problem and maintain good customer relations.

But the moment AOL switches to a two-tiered Internet where giant emailers pay for preferential service, the company will face a simple business choice: spend money to keep regular spam filters up-to-date, or make money by pushing more senders to pay for guaranteed delivery. Given a choice between spending money and making money, which do you think they will choose?

How does the email tax threaten the free and open Internet?

Certified mail is the first step on a dangerous road to ubiquitous pay-to-send email. If adoption of AOL's plan is strong, then other providers will attempt to create their own new sources of profit by charging for incoming mail, potentially with competing email taxation systems. The cost of communicating online will skyrocket, as intermediaries attempt to skim a fee from every communication. Paying AOL's ransom means paying to build a taxation system for the Net.

Indeed, a successful certified mail system will encourage Internet intermediaries more generally to consider a "two tiered" Internet, in which middlemen will charge fees for certain forms of traffic. AOL's company, Time Warner, also owns a cable network. Will they start charging third-party websites to connect to their cable Internet customers?

For more information on the threat to the Net from discriminatory services, see Free Press's "The Struggle for Net Freedom".

Will AOL's "email tax" reduce spam?

No. Despite some erroneous media reports, AOL does not even claim that its pay-to-send proposal will fight spam - because it won't.

CertifiedEmail is not a spam filtering system. It's a guaranteed-delivery system for bulk emailers. Non-paying spammers will not reduce the amount of mail they throw at AOL's filters simply because others pay to evade them.

If anything, this pay-to-send system will ensure that paid-for email, regardless of its topic or whether you want it, reliably makes it into your inbox. Email that has a cost shows how important the mail is to the sender. It does not demonstrate that the mail is wanted by the recipient. After all, if a foolproof way for a third-party to distinguish wanted from unwanted messages existed, we would have solved the spam problem long ago.

Will the email tax stop phishing?

"Phishing" is when an illegitimate email looks like it is from a reputable company and is intended to trick users into turning over personal and financial information, like credit card numbers. AOL's certified mail is not likely to stop phishing because most email recipients cannot tell when a "certification" is real. Even if phishers can't spoof the exact certified mail image, they can still come up with a fake mark that looks real enough. (In the short term, it may even make phishing worse: it's only a matter of time before the first phishing attack claiming to be "genuine certified mail" arrives in mail inboxes.)

In addition, there are other methods of combating phishing that do not require the harmful side-effects that come from creating a pay-to-send, two-tiered Internet like AOL is proposing. We believe that open systems and standards have a far better chance of being effective than a proprietary and centralized offering by one vendor.

What would be a good spam management system?

Unfortunately, "spam" is "whatever you don't want to read." No entity or system other than you can decide what email you want to read and what email you don't want to read. A spam management system that puts decision-making power into the hands of others disempowers you and will inevitably result in decisions with which you don't agree. Companies like AOL try to stop spam, but because they just cannot know what you want and what you don't want, they can never be completely successful. The best spam management system allows the individual the greatest decision-making power possible. For more, see EFF's white paper about spam.

Isn't CertifiedEmail the same concept as paying the postal service a certified rate?

No, that is an incorrect analogy. A better analogy for AOL might be an apartment superintendent who wants a cut to allow incoming mail to be delivered to people in his building without throwing the mail away.

Paying for AOL's certified mail is very different from the stamps we buy for postal mail, or even a certified delivery service. Senders buy their "stamps" to send data when they pay their Internet providers for Internet connections. Email will still be delivered to AOL for free by the many other networks that make up the Internet. AOL is merely offering to take money to not drop that mail before it hands it off on the final part of the trip - its customers' inboxes.

AOL is essentially trying to have two paydays: first when its customers pay their monthly bills, and then again when senders (who have already paid their bills) want to send emails to AOL customers.

Shouldn't Internet companies be free to make a profit?

Yes! Online businesses such as Craigslist are part of our coalition. Our coalition stands squarely on the side of online economic innovation and the ability to transact business online.

Ironically, AOL's "email tax" is a direct threat to much of what makes the Internet an innovative business environment. AOL's "email tax" is like a country that puts a tariff on incoming goods in the name of making a profit. In isolation, it may seem like a goldmine. But when every other country does the same thing, barriers to entry pop up everywhere and the free market is destroyed. The Internet is a force for economic innovation only if it is an open community with no barriers to entry - but AOL's "email tax" is a gigantic barrier to entry that will cause many others to go up.

Isn't Yahoo! doing this too?

Yahoo! has flirted publicly with adopting a pay-to-send system, but it is more tentative than AOL. That's why it is all the more important to stop AOL's "email tax." We need to show the entire industry that it's wrong to threaten the free and open Internet.

Our group can afford this service. Should we be concerned?

Yes. Even if you can afford it, you might not be eligible. The entry criteria for AOL's certified mail scheme includes a year of business history, six months of sound mailing history, a U.S. or Canadian headquarters, as well as other unstated requirements. The company also says that it is only accepting "brands well regarded by consumers or small businesses" at this stage.

Advocacy groups that have determined opponents might find any pay-to-send system costly and counterproductive to adopt. They may find themselves the victims of "reputation attacks", in which political adversaries subscribe multiple times to their opponents' lists, thus costing the sender money. The adversary could then report the incoming mail as spam. Goodmail subscribers who exceed their allotted weekly quota of spam complaints are expelled from the system, no matter how much they have invested in existing certified mail infrastructure.

If you are concerned that your business or Net activity may be affected by AOL's "email tax", then please sign our letter. Your support will help us lobby AOL to abandon this idea, and we can keep you up to date with the latest news on the issue.

Aren't non-profits given free access?

Some non-profits that meet unspecified qualifications would get free certified mail this year - but they would have no guarantee that their emails would be delivered after that.

Non-profits wishing to avail themselves of the free access will have to go through a lengthy qualification process. And if they send their mail themselves, they must purchase and install new hardware and software to "frank" their emails with the system's token. So "free" doesn't really mean free.

Furthermore, some non-profits use third parties to deliver their mail. As with AOL, there are perverse incentives for these intermediaries to adopt pay-to-send email systems and then skim off a little of the profits for themselves. To promote business, the GoodMail Systems, AOL's certified email vendor, is offering these third party intermediaries a share of the profit if they sign up their entire network to use the pay-to-send system. Organizations that were previously merely carriers of email now have an opportunity to raise toll-booths and charge for each delivery.

What evidence suggests that AOL would actually choose to abandon customer service?

AOL's anti-spam staff is highly regarded and has good relations with the wider Internet community, including our coalition members. Unfortunately, they are not in charge of AOL.

Before pay-to-send was widely publicized, AOL was already planning on removing features from free email to encourage mailers to join its pay-to-send scheme. On January 30th, the company proposed limiting and then shutting down its "enhanced whitelist" (the opposite of a blacklist: a list of mailers that, by virtue of following AOL's best practices, were permitted to have images and hyperlinks displayed by default in AOL mail clients). It said that these privileges would only be available to paying certified email customers. Following complaints, the company backed away from this plan, but its original intent is clear.

Other pay-to-send delivery services have also demonstrated how companies can quickly move from accommodating senders to charging them. Microsoft is part of a similar program called Bonded Sender, where senders are guaranteed delivery if they post a high-value bond that many charities and nonprofits cannot afford to pay. Many of our members have been told in the past by Microsoft that to get their email delivered safely, they should consider paying the Bonded Sender fee. These groups include Peacefire, a free speech organization that, ironically, actually sues spammers in court.