Calif. Lawmaker to Hold Hearings on AOL E-Mail Plan

AOL’s plans to implement the Goodmail certification system may run up against some legislative hurdles in California.

Concerned that AOL’s intended course of action would result in a two-tier email world, Calif. Senator Dean Florez is holding a public hearing in the state capitol on the issue later this month. He’s also drafting legislation against the plan that he intends to introduce “in the next couple of weeks”.

“We’re thinking about creating some legislation that does not allow for toll booth systems for email, so that we have an equalized view of email,” Florez told ClickZ News, adding that the email provision would be appended to a Net neutrality bill already in the works. Florez is chairman of California’s newly-formed Senate select committee on e-commerce, wireless technology and consumer-driven programming.

AOL’s controversial plan would allow permission-based email senders certified by Goodmail to bypass spam filters and obtain a special “trusted” icon in AOL users’ inboxes. Their messages would also have images and links activated by default. Senders would pay “a fraction of a cent” per message for this type of delivery. AOL plans to keep its whitelist and enhanced whitelist programs, and has said it would help non-profits with deliverability free of charge.

“We look forward to providing Mr. Florez with the true facts and a clear picture of what we’re doing with Certified Email and with our new, pro-bono, free email delivery program for non-profits and non-profit advocacy organizations,” said Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesperson, in a statement.

Florez became aware of the AOL matter when his office took calls from constituents concerned about its impact. Many of those expressing concern had heard about the AOL plan from MoveOn.org, which has led the “DearAOL” petition coalition and been a vocal critic of the plan. The organization says it now has 600 groups in its coalition and has collected more than 300,000 signatures for its petition. MoveOn.org believes, once a Goodmail-type system is implemented, AOL will have little incentive to eliminate false positives, assuming larger mailers agree to pay.

“So then you have all the little guys fending for themselves,” said Adam Green with MoveOn.org. They’d allow “their spam filters to deteriorate over time, and more and more emails would go into spam filters.”

Florez said he’s inviting AOL and Yahoo, which has also announced plans to work with Goodmail, to explain their implementation and intentions at the public hearing, tentatively to be held March 28 in Sacramento. “Are you guys just giving up and creating a whole new channel where people who can afford are able to, in essence, get certified mail, and you’ve kind of given up on the rest of the world?” asks Florez.

As for legislation, Florez says his office is looking into whether an outright ban of a Goodmail-style accreditation system in California would be a possible legislative option. Barring that, the lawmaker says he’s mulling charging AOL a “public goods charge,” a tax of sorts that would penalize the company for “inconveniencing” consumers in California. Florez says public utilities are required to pay such charges.

“The bottom line is, we want to make it a disincentive for them to do that [implement the plan],” said Florez.

Goodmail is by no means the only company to offer certification systems that allow marketers easier entrée to inboxes. Firms like Habeas and Return Path’s Bonded Sender program also offer such services.

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