Amid Controversy, AOL to Keep Enhanced Whitelist

After fielding criticism from email senders and other stakeholders for its plan to eliminate its free, merit-based whitelist, America Online has reversed its earlier decision and will continue to offer its Enhanced Whitelist in addition to its new CertifiedEmail service.

“The Enhanced Whitelist is going to remain in place as long as it continues to serve our members,” AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham told ClickZ News. “We had a very successful week of discussions, both internally and externally with stakeholders and email partners. We recognized the value of an Enhanced Whitelist for our members, as well as the marketplace.”

AOL announced last week that it would begin implementing a per-message fee for commercial email senders to gain certain privileges, such as the automatic display of images and hyperlinks. Those privileges had previously been available for free to senders who earned placement on AOL’s Enhanced Whitelist for good sending behavior, and who maintained very low complaint rates.

When it made that announcement, AOL said that by mid-year it would phase out the Enhanced Whitelist in favor of CertifiedEmail, a new cryptographic solution it launched in partnership with Goodmail. Under that program, senders who become accredited by Goodmail and maintain low complaint rates can pay a per-message fee to bypass AOL’s content filters and have images and hyperlinks displayed automatically. E-mails are still only delivered to AOL users who have opted-in to receive marketers’ messages.

Graham said the plan to eliminate the Enhanced Whitelist was never carved in stone, and that it was more of a working idea that was one of several options being considered. Now, after a week of gathering feedback from its partners, members, and others, AOL has formally decided to keep its Enhanced Whitelist.

“The idea that we were going to discontinue the whitelist was certainly something that we could have communicated in a different way. We were giving consideration to doing a number of different things to our whitelist process,” Graham said. “We wanted to have a working draft of a document that we could begin a flexible and open dialogue. It was always our intention to initiate a discussion. We think that maintaining our free whitelist, as well as our free Enhanced Whitelist, in addition to offering the option of Goodmail, is a good way to go for all involved.”

Much of the outcry last week was led by Goodmail competitor Return Path, whose Bonded Sender program performs similar accreditation and reputation-based whitelisting for ISPs, as does Habeas. Objections centered around the phase-out of a free option that rewarded good behavior.

“It seems unfair to mailers who have permission relationships with their recipients, have maintained low complaint rates, and have earned their way onto a whitelist,” Matt Blumberg, Return Path’s CEO, told ClickZ News. “The big issue is the lack of an unpaid way to get those privileges. If Goodmail is a better solution, the market will decide, but the senders who already do everything right shouldn’t be punished.”

Return Path also offers other deliverability services that help marketers craft messages so they have a better chance of landing in inboxes.

AOL still plans to make changes to the Enhanced Whitelist program in the next few months, such as lowering the allowable complaint threshold, to make it more effective and harder to misuse, Graham said. AOL is not changing its course with CertifiedEmail, however. The service will be offered to senders in the next 30 to 60 days, and the company maintains its stance that the majority of senders will see the value of the service, and will eventually choose to enroll.

In addition to the automatic display of links and images, senders gain added benefits from the CertifiedEmail program. CertifiedEmail messages will bypass content and volume filters, and are guaranteed to reach the user’s inbox. In addition, AOL will add a “trust symbol” to messages sent by Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail senders, which will appear in the inbox and message window, so members will understand that a sender’s identity and reputation have been verified. Senders also receive message-level reporting on delivery metrics.

AOL and Goodmail have not disclosed what they will charge senders for the service, other than “a fraction of a cent per email,” a portion of which will go to AOL. AOL and Goodmail have said that there would be offering discounts to early-adopters in the first year, to help raise awareness of the benefits of the program. But while AOL stands to benefit financially from the arrangement, Graham insists that is not the driving force behind the program.

“This is not about revenue shares,” he said. “What this is about, more than anything else, is continuing to deliver on our goal of protecting our members’ safety and security, and maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of email as a communications tool. That is the only issue that we are truly interested in pursuing.”

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