In the latest chapter of a months-long saga, America Online answers critics of its CertifiedEmail program by offering to help them make the Enhanced Whitelist.
On the heels of protests last week from a group of activists led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), AOL has announced it will offer free email deliverability services to qualifying not-for-profit organizations and not-for-profit advocacy groups.
"We want to make sure that not-for-profits who depend on timely communication with their members get all of the privileges of this powerful medium," said Charles Stiles, AOL postmaster. "Our announcement today guarantees that every certified not-for-profit will get the same benefits as private-sector companies that have decided to utilize Goodmail's CertifiedEmail system."
Participating non-profits won't receive Goodmail's services for free, however, but will instead receive AOL's help to get on its Enhanced Whitelist.
AOL has come under fire for a plan announced in January to eliminate the Enhanced Whitelist. Later, it revised the plan to scale back the Enhanced Whitelist program. In its place, AOL plans to implement Goodmail's CertifiedEmail program, which charges a per-message fee for commercial email senders to gain certain privileges, such as the automatic display of images and hyperlinks.
Those privileges have been available for free to senders who earn placement on AOL's Enhanced Whitelist for good sending behavior, and who maintain very low complaint rates. New features only available through AOL's paid CertifiedEmail program include bypassing certain content and volume filters, adding a "trust symbol" to messages sent by CertifiedEmail senders, and receiving message-level reporting on delivery metrics.
"We announce this today to make sure that there is no further confusion or question about what not-for-profits would need to do to be able to communicate to AOL members on a level commensurate with large, commercial email providers who opt to use Goodmail's Certified E-mail program," said Stiles. "There will be no requirement, ever, for not-for-profits who deliver email to AOL members to pay for email certification and delivery."
AOL has been investigating solutions for not-for-profit groups for several weeks, but the recent outcry accelerated its plans, according to AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham.
"AOL may never see eye-to-eye with those groups who think there is no place for a paid service like CertifiedEmail. But we stand by CertifiedEmail as a very critical tool to benefit consumers and fight phishing and identity theft online," Graham said. "The idea that we were ever going to offer only a paid delivery option to not-for-profit groups is erroneous, and we are going the extra step to remove it from the discussion."
Under the new plan, which is expected to begin in the next 30 to 60 days, AOL will work with not-for-profits that conform to, and abide by, AOL's anti-spam and email policies and standards to make sure they are on the Enhanced Whitelist. The messages will not be marked as "certified," but will be handled and delivered on an identical basis to CertifiedEmail. This program will be administered and provided by AOL directly to not-for-profits, at no charge.
For not-for-profits who wish to use a third-party accreditation service, AOL is in the process of evaluating vendors and will choose one or more to participate in a program where AOL will pay the sign-up costs for not-for-profits who want to participate, according to Graham.
Graham declined to name which provider or providers might be involved in this program, but said that AOL is in talks with several email accreditation providers, and expects a vendor or vendors will be chosen in the next 30 days, and the program will be made available to not-for-profits in the next 90 days.
Goodmail also offers reduced rates to not-for-profits who want to sign up for the CertifiedEmail program, Graham said.
AOL also vowed to continue to make additional improvements to its regular Whitelist and Enhanced Whitelist, an answer to another charge from the EFF and other protesting groups that AOL stood to gain financially by degrading email for non-paying senders.
"There has been a philosophical debate that has been deliberately confused by critics. Their arguments are misguided and erroneous," Graham said. "We're taking these steps at this time because of the confusion that has been created in the marketplace."
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Kevin Newcomb joined ClickZ in August 2004, covering search marketing and other online marketing topics. He has been reporting on web-based businesses since 2000.
Before the bubble burst, Kevin was a marketing manager for an online computer reseller, handling copywriting, e-mail marketing, search marketing and running the affiliate program.
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