Hey, big sender! AOLmail goes two-tier (and 3D BB)

In today's IT Blogwatch, we look at moves to tax bulk email senders to AOL or Yahoo. Not to mention big brother watching [out for] YOU in 3D...

Goodmail Systems will charge for 'special' delivery of some mail to Yahoo and AOL. Nicholas Carr starts out by calling email  "the internet's original killer app - the service that spurred the multitudes to go online. Now, it may turn into a very different kind of killer app - the one that kills the traditional internet. Saul Hansell, of the New York Times, reports that email giants AOL and Yahoo 'are about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered.' The tariff will, the companies argue, make spam easier to identify and manage. The companies also, as Hansell notes, 'stand to earn millions of dollars a year from the system if it is widely adopted.' ... the thin edge of a wedge that could ultimately destroy the 'network neutrality' that has defined the internet up to now ... Whether it's the censoring of digits or the pricing of digits, we're now moving into a grey area, and that's where the future of the net, as a commercial, social and technological force, will be determined."

» Which drew comment from Goodmail's Daniel Dreymann: "Until the introduction of the first stamp in the UK in the 1830’s, postal systems were based on a recipient pay model. If you wanted to get a letter delivered to you, you had to pay the postman ... Email is not a pull medium. Messages are pushed to consumers. There is no absolute mechanism to assess whether a message is wanted by its intended recipient or not. The mailbox belongs to the recipient. This is why anti-spam filters applied by ISPs, for years now, are legitimate ... Problem is: no filter is perfect. Bad messages go through and 'phish' innocent users. Good and wanted messages are blocked (just look at the caption for the NYT graphics: 'Of legitimate commercial email, 20 percent is caught in spam filters and not delivered or sent to junk mail folders')"

» Which leads us to your humble blogwatcher, Richi Jennings: "[the Times story] had a pie chart, attributed to Ferris Research, illustrating the proportions of legitimate email that are sent to businesses, sent to consumers, and sent by spammers. The caption of the chart implied that 20% of email gets accidentally deleted or quarantined by spam filters. Ouch. While 'false positives' are still a significant problem, this figure is of course far too high. Unfortunately, the sense of the original statistic seems to have been lost in the editing process. Typical false positive rates experienced by spam filter users are closer to 0.1%. State-of-the-art filters can achieve 0.001% -- equivalent to about one legitimate message per month. The figure that I gave the NYT was the 'lost' proportion of legitimate, bulk email -- e.g. legitimate direct marketing and transactional messages. This is roughly 20%, but dropping fast as better spam filters are implemented. While the Times' caption wasn't wrong, it was apparently misleading."

» Later, Richi adds more thoughts: "What's going on? In essence, AOL has outsourced some of its whitelist to Goodmail. Goodmail will impose a 'tax' on commercial senders, if they wish to have first class delivery to AOL users' inboxes. First class in this context means bypassing spam filters and having images and links function correctly without the user being warned of their potential danger. A portion of the tax revenue is returned to AOL (the amount is undisclosed, but we believe it to be at least half) and the rest is retained by Goodmail ... Some senders will object to being 'held to ransom.' The danger to Goodmail and AOL is that one of the big senders will be big enough to encourage AOL users to use a different email service. Alternatively, they may simply put more emphasis on their own portal messaging systems, like eBay is beginning to. Then they just have to send short text-only mails to AOL users to ask them to check the eBay site. And what of the poor AOL customer? As I've said before, Goodmail adds no practical value from the user's perspective. Goodmail (and Iconix) deliberately miss the opportunity to protect them from phishing -- there's no big red flashing warning icon when a phishing email is received."

» Ars's Eric Bangeman thinks like most of us: "Aside from speed, one crucial difference between e-mail and snail mail is that e-mail is free ... AOL and Yahoo are going to start charging anywhere from 1/4¢ to 1¢ to guarantee that messages will wind up in the inboxes of the recipients. Free e-mail will still be accepted, but there will be no guarantee that it will find its way through the spam filters and into users' inboxes. In the case of AOL, free e-mail is also likely to be delivered without included images and URLs ... pitching it as a way to guarantee reputable companies (i.e., those willing to pony up the cost per message) that their messages will make it to their intended audience ... And just like the post office, AOL and Yahoo will be making money on the whole venture. The payments will be made to ... Goodmail that says its mission is 'to bring safety and reliability to e-mail for the benefit of all participants' ... Some ISPs are advocating for the creation of a tiered Internet, and this appears to be another small step in that direction ... the surcharges are high enough that sending e-mails to AOL and Yahoo users who have subscribed to [some] services is economically infeasible ... the AOL/Yahoo initiative isn't likely to have anything more than a negligible impact on the torrent of spam ... AOL and Yahoo are going about it the wrong way by charging senders."

» Aral hits the nail on the head:  "Basically, it appears that these guys are saying that if you want to send email to someone with a Yahoo or AOL email address and make sure it gets there, you'll have to pay for the privilege. Now let's think about that for a second... umm... nope, don't think so! ... From now on, if I receive email from someone with a Yahoo or AOL email address, I'll be asking them to please use some other service or they may eventually miss out on important email from me in the future. This is just plain greedy/wrong and I hope people will vote by avoiding AOL and Yahoo email addresses. I know that I'll personally be warning people not to use them."

» Seumas has the final say: "So let me get this straight. AOL MEMBERS use my website, which is an auction site. They rely on email notices for everything from password reminders to user communications to auction outbid/sale/win notices. But because my site is a NON-PROFIT and NON-COMMERCIAL site, I won't be able to reliably have my email delivered to THEIR users? I might be missing something here, but doesn't that HARM THEIR EXISTING PAYING CUSTOMERS by making it difficult for them to use the internet services that are out there for them?"

Buffer overflow:

And finally...  Big Brother is watching... in 3D!

Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at blogwatch@richi.co.uk. Also contributing to today's post: Judi Dey, our very own Antipodean.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon