Posted by Cindy Cohn
Remember the famous email rumor that made the rounds in the 1990s: "Congress
is trying to tax your Internet connection, write in now!"
Well what wasn't true in the 1990s is apparently coming true in 2006, only
the beneficiaries won't be Uncle Sam -- it will be Yahoo, AOL, and a company
ironically called Goodmail. Yahoo and AOL
have announced that
they will guarantee access to your email inbox for email senders who pay $.0025
per message. They will override their own spam filters and webbug-strippers, and
deliver the mail directly with a "certified" notice. In the process, they will
treat more of your email as spam, and email you're expecting won't be
The justification is that if people have to pay to send email, they won't
send junk email. Apparently AOL and Yahoo believe that if we "tax" speech then
only desirable speech happens. We all know how well that works for postal mail
-- that's why no one gets any "free" AOL starter disks, right?
More seriously, as we discuss below, this isn't really an anti-spam measure
as much as a "pay to speak" email measure, and it won't end spam or phishing.
Prominent anti-spammer Richard Cox of Spamhaus agrees: "an e-mail charge
will destroy the spirit of the Internet."
(Read on for more after the jump.)
Email being basically free isn't a bug. It's a feature that has driven the
digital revolution. It allows groups to scale up from a dozen friends to a
hundred people who love knitting to half-a-million concerned citizens without a
Email readers and senders will both lose, because the incentives for Yahoo,
AOL, and Goodmail are all wrong. Their service is only valuable if it "saves"
you from their spam filters. In turn, they have an incentive to treat more of
your email as spam, thereby encouraging people to sign up.
Even email senders who just want to reach Dad@aol.com may eventually be in trouble. Once a
pay-to-speak system like this gets going, it will be increasingly difficult for
people who don't pay to get their mail through. The system has no way to
distinguish between ordinary mail and bulk mail, spam and non-spam, personal and
commercial mail. It just gives preference to people who pay.
And prepare to be shaken down if you run a noncommercial mailing list,
whether for local bowling leagues or political organizations with a national
membership. Not only will the per-message fees quickly add up, but the Goodmail
technology will also be costly for senders to setup and use. Goodmail's giving a
"special offer" for nonprofits through 2006, but when that ends their messages
will presumably end up in the trash, too.
If email senders bear a burden, who gains? Not Yahoo and AOL customers, whose
email boxes are being sold off. It will presumably be harder for even desired
email to reach them.
In return, customers probably will now get not one but two helpings of spam.
For only $.0025 cent per message, Yahoo and AOL will guarantee delivery of this
extra-special "certified" paid-placement mail, served alongside your ordinary
spam. They'll also preserve webbugs, little privacy invaders that report back
when you look at the email. Goodmail says that it will ensure that the messages
aren't spam, but it's not clear how they will enforce this. 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.
What about phishing? Remember, the problem with phishing is that ordinary end
users cannot always tell when a "certification" is real. Spoofing the appearance
of Goodmail certification to end users should not be much of a problem, and all
of the encryption in the world won't fix that.
Spam is a real problem demanding real solutions, but taxing the Internet,
even if the tax is "voluntary" and even if the money goes to ISPs, isn't one of
them. The best solution is to put more power in the hands of users to control
spam filters and a robust market in those filters. Allowing ISPs to auction off
access to email boxes and ransom free speech solves nothing.
EFF is working on an extended and more technical description of the problems
with Goodmail, but this is a bad idea we think should be nipped in the bud. We
urge AOL and Yahoo subscribers and those who communicate with them, to tell them
that taxing email is not the right way to go.
Related Issues: Free