Nonprofit Activists Take Aim at AOL's E-Mail Plans

  |  March 1, 2006   |  Comments

A coalition of non-profits hopes to sway public sentiment against the ISP's plans for an e-mail certification program.

Leave it to a common foe to bring together unlikely allies. This time, it took a new email certification program set to be offered by America Online. Representatives from Gun Owners of America and Moveon.org Civic Action – groups typically at odds -- held proverbial hands during yesterday’s hour-long conference call as they decried the program’s potential to squelch free online communications.

“Alarm bells started ringing for us,” recalls Danny O'Brien, activist coordinator for online civil liberties advocacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), harking back to when he and his colleagues first learned of AOL’s plans for the program. The EFF’s primary concern, he explains, is the “collateral damage” of AOL’s “overenthusiastic” authentication program, and its long-term consequences for the future of email communications and Internet freedom.

It’s not necessarily the company’s current state of email affairs that the AOL naysayers are protesting. Rather, the concern, as reiterated in an open letter and petition released yesterday at DearAOL.com, is with the potential impact of AOL’s new optional, paid certification provided through Goodmail Systems' CertifiedEmail service.

The program, argues the letter, “actually gives AOL a financial incentive to degrade email for non-paying senders. This would disrupt the communications of millions who cannot afford to pay [AOL’s] fees-including the non-profits, civic organizations, charities, small businesses, and community mailing lists that have arisen for every topic under the sun and that make email so vital to [AOL’s] subscribers.” Essentially, the protesting groups, which include the AFL-CIO, Common Cause and RightMarch, worry that AOL will neglect its free whitelisting services, instead devoting most of its resources to its paid email service.

During the conference call, terms such as “slippery slope” and “level-playing-field” were used in abundance by those representing the anti-AOL league in describing the certification program. Online free speech and civil liberties advocates, the EFF and Free Press, hosted the call.

AOL spokesperson, Nicholas Graham dismisses the idea that AOL’s free services may degrade, insisting to ClickZ News, “I think our track record is one that is the best indicator as to what we are doing and what we will do in the future at AOL.”

AOL’s new program, which is scheduled to launch in the next 30 days, was originally announced in October 2005. The goals, says AOL, are to help assure email deliverability, improve open rates, and enhance click-through rates, as well as help consumers protect against identity theft (a particular concern when it comes to communications from financial institutions). Messages sent through the Goodmail system are embedded with a cryptographically-secure token, which, when detected by a participating ISP like AOL, automatically approves the message for delivery to a recipient's inbox. When delivered to AOL users, Goodmail-authenticated emails will be signified with a "trust symbol" in the inbox and message window. They'll also automatically display links and images, which are blocked by default.

Graham, told ClickZ News that American Red Cross and The New York Times Company are among the bulk-email senders that have already chosen to use the Goodmail offering when sending email to AOL members. The cost will be a fraction of a cent per message. As noted in a general statement from Graham, “Any revenue derived from this effort will be incremental and materially intangible.” He also told ClickZ that AOL has requested that nonprofits using Goodmail’s system pay a reduced rate.

As spam and phishing problems have grown, email marketers have struggled to get their messages through to consumers, while ISPs and email providers have implemented safety nets such as whitelists to guard against the scourge of spam. Indeed, AOL will continue to offer its free Whitelist and Enhanced WhiteList services to email senders.

The motley crew of detractors has deemed AOL’s CertifiedEmail program an “email tax,” seemingly as a means of attracting attention and raising the ire of email users. The fear is that down the road the program could become as nefarious. In its counterattack, AOL contends that the new CertifiedEmail program is a “voluntary way for large email senders to deliver authenticated, legitimate, previously opted-in email.”

Should the groups involved in the protest choose to boycott AOL’s email services, it could have a negative impact on many of them. For instance, 20-25 percent of the emails sent each week by cancer education group Association of Cancer Online Resources go to AOL recipients, according to founder Gilles Frydman. Added Eli Pariser, executive director of Moveon.org Civic Action, “You’re looking at between two and four million AOL users among members of these groups.” Because nonprofits like those protesting AOL employ email as an increasingly-important tool for garnering donations, not sending messages to AOL users would most likely affect their bottom lines.

Not everyone on the call agreed to rule out a boycott, though. Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America quipped, “If, pardon the expression, AOL pulls the trigger on this plan, then [a boycott] would be our response.”

There’s little doubt this controversy will continue to play out. By press time, more than 1100 people had signed the DearAOL letter. Commented AOL spokesperson, Lisa Gibby, to ClickZ, “It’s kind of a mystery to us….We truly believe that once people understand the facts they’ll realize this is a good thing for the Internet.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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