California Legislator Hopes to Take AOL/Goodmail Discussion National

California State Senator Dean Florez hopes this week’s hearings on AOL’s CertifiedEmail plans resonate nationwide.

The senator expressed his desire to get the federal government and federal regulatory commissions involved in the issue during a conference call to discuss Monday’s hearing before California’s Senate Select Committee on E-Commerce, Wireless Technology and Consumer Driven Programming. The Democratic senator called the optional, paid certification AOL is offering through Goodmail “precedent-setting.”

“How do we get them [federal players] engaged? We have a hearing like this,” he continued. The senator referred to California as the “home of Silicon Valley,” and therefore the ideal place to “start a dialogue.” Florez represents California’s 16th district, which encompasses Silicon Valley.

The senator expressed skepticism of the Goodmail system, worrying that it could prevent legitimate emails from non-profits from getting through to AOL users. He said the state plans to monitor AOL’s email delivery. Specifically mentioning The United Farm Workers, Florez insisted that if non-profits or groups are unable to or cannot afford to participate in AOL’s certification system, “We’re really going to be on the backs of AOL….If one of those emails gets caught in something, we’re going to convene real quick.” Florez, who is running for reelection this year, has sponsored state legislation protecting farm laborers from pesticides and heat-related illness.

“We welcome the scrutiny,” said AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham, responding to the potential for California to monitor its email delivery. According to AOL’s presentation at the hearing, the Goodmail certification adds a layer of authentication above the whitelist system to help curb the rising tide of phishing emails, which are considered a type of spam. The company also stressed in its presentation that in order to utilize the Goodmail service, “senders must meet stricter standards than bulk senders using AOL’s Whitelist services,” and non-participation in the Goodmail system will not affect email delivery.

According to the senator’s re-cap of Monday’s hearing, committee members discussed other third-party email certification providers such as Habeas and Return Path, and questioned the value of using Goodmail’s system. Committee members evidently also mulled the idea of the state of California serving as an email certifier itself if usage of paid third-party certification becomes more prevalent. “I would not discount the state being the certifier for email and IP addresses, etc.,” stated Florez, adding that practical implementation of such a process would require further exploration.

The widespread furor over the plan started in earnest about a month ago when detractors protested AOL’s certification program, calling it an “email tax” and launching an online petition, DearAOL, that has since garnered over 41,000 signatures and the support of hundreds of organizations.

AOL is currently designing a certification program tailored to the needs of not-for-profits and advocacy groups, which it plans to offer for free to such organizations. According to Graham, AOL will announce details of the new pro-bono program in the next 30 days.

Both AOL and Yahoo in October 2005 announced relationships with Goodmail Systems. AOL is expected to launch the voluntary paid Goodmail certification offering soon, while Yahoo hasn’t yet announced details of how it will implement the system.

Though asked to attend, Yahoo was not represented at the hearing. According to Yahoo spokesperson Karen Mahon, the company “declined to participate because it would have been premature for us.” The publisher and email service provider has not yet launched its Goodmail certification offering, which it plans to start testing in a few months. During testing, Yahoo will limit Goodmail certification to transactional email messages, according to Mahon, who said Yahoo chose to use Goodmail to counteract phishing attempts.

According to Senator Florez, a transcript of Monday’s hearing will be available in the next couple of weeks.

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