It's strange to witness Craig Newmark, the soft-spoken, left-leaning founder of the eponymous classified ad Web site, share a podium and strike up a common cause with Larry Pratt, the tough-talking head of Gun Owners of America, which bills itself, proudly, as "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington." Then there's the odd couple of Eli Pariser, the passionately partisan executive director of MoveOn.org, and Gilles Frydman, who runs the Association of Cancer Online Resources, which is ardently non-partisan and non-political. Far from being natural bedfellows, they joined together on Tuesday to fight a scourge they say threatens each of them alike: AOL's plan to impose what they describe as a "tax" on e-mail.
The word choice is a bit of an obfuscation -- or, as America Online says, a deliberate and gross misrepresentation of a prudent idea. What the critics call a tax is AOL's plan to charge organizations a fee to guarantee their e-mail messages are delivered to AOL customers -- and not caught up in spam folders or mistaken for fraudulent e-mail.
Under the plan, which takes effect within 30 days, AOL insists that its standard, free e-mail system will not change; nobody who wants to send e-mail to AOL users would be compelled to pay any fee. But if companies that prove they aren't spammers -- such as banks or Internet retailers that have an existing relationship with an AOL user -- pay AOL about a quarter-penny per e-mail, their messages would bypass AOL's spam filters and land directly in AOL users' in boxes. E-mail that has been paid for would be stamped "AOL Certified," a sign to customers that the message has been vetted by AOL and has been deemed safe.
E-mail, after all, is under assault. AOL users and the rest of us are constantly bombarded by spam and, more perniciously, "phishing" messages, which appear to be from legitimate companies but have actually been sent by people looking to steal your personal information. Nobody trusts e-mail anymore, especially e-mail that concerns money. Because trickery is endemic to e-mail, according to some studies, people regularly ignore messages from banks, credit card companies, online commercial sites like eBay and Paypal, and nonprofit organizations such as the Red Cross.
"Consumers have a hard time telling what's authentic and what's not," says Richard Gingras, the CEO of Goodmail Systems, the company that will be running AOL's paid e-mail program. The AOL plan, Gingras says, will bring some measure of order to the lawlessness of the common e-mail in box.
AOL's critics recognize the company is trying to address a real problem, but the prescription, they say, is worse than the disease. The plan is the "first step down the very slippery slope of dividing the Internet into two classes of users -- those who pay for preferential treatment and those who are left behind with unreliable service," says Adam Green, the civic communications director for MoveOn.org.
AOL, like many large e-mail providers, currently spends large sums to keep the Internet's free e-mail system running well (or running at all), employing engineers and systems administrators who man the front lines of the war against e-mail tricksters. But once AOL begins charging companies for e-mail, Green says, it will no longer have any reason to maintain the free e-mail service. He adds that an unreliable, free e-mail service might actually benefit AOL, as it would provide a greater incentive for firms to pay for guaranteed delivery to AOL users.
The loser in this scheme, critics say, would be groups that can't afford to pay. "The ultimate question we've been asking ourselves is, after AOL's e-mail tax goes into effect, will the little guy be able to turn a small idea into a big idea on the Internet?" Green says. "If somebody starts a Web site around some community problem or cause and gets several thousand people to sign up for an e-mail list, and then tries to send e-mail that consistently goes into an ever-deteriorating spam filter -- that's a barrier to entry on the Internet."
MoveOn is one of the largest groups in a coalition of more than 50 organizations that have banded together to stop AOL's e-mail scheme. This week, the diverse collection -- it spans the partisan spectrum, and includes many non-political groups -- launched a Web site at dearaol.com to collect signatures of people opposed to the idea. Some critics of the plan threaten dire consequences for AOL if it goes ahead with certified e-mail. Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, says his group would call for a boycott of the company to protest the move. On Tuesday, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who runs the lefty political blog Daily Kos, suggested that he might block AOL users from his site as punishment for its e-mail idea.
Despite the coalition's rhetoric -- the use of the word "tax" appears to be deliberately misleading -- it's not clear that AOL's plan would gravely threaten e-mail. In fact, it may improve it. The groups opposed to the program offer what amounts to a hypothesis rather than a certainty: They outline a scenario in which, under certain circumstances, AOL's plan could result in the end of e-mail as we know it. Indeed, there is some truth to their hypothesis that, if not closely monitored, AOL's plan could prompt the giant Internet service provider to reduce the amount it invests in keeping free e-mail working effectively. On the other hand, the danger of breaking e-mail already seems moot. If you've got to spend much of your time and mental energy on the lookout for dangerous messages lurking in your daily flood of mail, isn't e-mail already broken?
The primary philosophy behind e-mail, by far the most frequently used application on the Internet, is freedom. This isn't a statement about politics but about technology. Unlike other forms of online communication -- say, instant messaging -- e-mail isn't controlled by a central authority; the system operates according to a set of long-established protocols that, in theory, allow anyone to e-mail anyone else practically anonymously, and without receiving any permission to do so. This is both a blessing and a curse.
The laissez-faire sensibility clearly makes e-mail useful and easy to use. You don't need to apply for a license or pay a fee either to send or receive an e-mail message; these days, e-mail addresses are free, and you can have one for any of various personas you maintain online. Which, of course, is also the source of the problem. The ease with which tricksters can acquire e-mail addresses, send e-mail, and masquerade as legitimate senders is a direct consequence of e-mail's openness -- and the bad behavior naturally reduces the system's utility.
Over the years, firms with an interest in maintaining e-mail -- especially ISPs such as AOL -- have devised various technical methods to address some of the frustrations associated with the system's openness. The main methods are lists and filters: AOL, for instance, maintains an enormous "whitelist" of e-mail senders whom it has determined are good guys; a similar "blacklist" of bad guys; and a sophisticated anti-spam filter that makes educated -- but frequently erroneous -- guesses about which messages may be from spammers, phishers and other tricksters.
None of these technological methods quite solves the problem of fraudulent e-mail, says Richard Gingras of Goodmail. Gingras, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur, says he's been thinking of ways to fix e-mail for more than two years. In developing this plan, he says he spoke to people across the industry: executives at ISPs, people at standards groups, and engineers who understand the problems with e-mail. (Full disclosure: While serving as an executive at Apple in the mid-'90s, Gingras helped secure seed-money funding for Salon.) After researching all that ails e-mail, Gingras says he concluded "there is no way to provide true authenticity of messaging with simple bits of technology -- the only way we can do that is with business processes." When he says "business processes," Gingras is talking about human beings. The only way to make sure that a company that wants to send out bulk e-mail has good intentions is for people, rather than computers, to vet its aims. That process takes money -- which is where Goodmail comes in.
If a firm wants to send certified e-mail to AOL users, it must first apply for accreditation through Goodmail. Gingras says Goodmail will scrutinize companies that apply to make sure they're "highly qualified" and are not identity thieves. Companies must also prove that they have an established relationship with AOL users. So the only way a firm might send you a "certified" message touting its new remedy for your unfortunately minuscule penis is if you've previously told the company that you'd be interested in hearing about its various pumps, pills or exercise regimens. In addition, Goodmail would monitor e-mailers to make sure they're not upsetting users. If a certified sender generates a large number of complaints from AOL users or violates Goodmail's terms in other ways, the company would be dropped from the program. The fees the companies pay, which would be shared between Goodmail and AOL, would pay for this sophisticated accreditation system, though Gingras adds that the company would offer steep discounts for nonprofits that want to send certified e-mail.
Many of AOL's critics acknowledge that the AOL program wouldn't ruin e-mail immediately. "The Goodmail approach hits a lot of good points, and it's definitely a sincere attempt to do something to improve e-mail," says Danny O'Brien, the activism coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups opposed to certified e-mail. "The real thing that Goodmail comes close to providing is some sort of authentication -- you can see this as a notarizing system, and in theory we aren't opposed to that." But while the plan may have its advantages, it sets up a host of incentives that can only lead to the long-term degradation of free e-mail, O'Brien and others say. AOL would let its spam-fighting and anti-phishing efforts languish, the criticis say, making it harder for legitimate messages from groups -- groups like MoveOn, or the EFF, or Gun Owners of America -- who don't pay to get through to AOL users. Increasingly, they fear, you'd need to pay AOL to talk to its members.
The source of the problem, say critics, is that AOL will get a slice of Goodmail's income for scrutinizing senders -- and AOL's motivations for managing e-mail will always be financial. After the plan is implemented, if some organization -- whether a for-profit company or a nonprofit advocacy group -- has trouble getting its free e-mail to AOL users, AOL would face a choice about what to do about the problem. AOL could ask its systems administrators to look into the issue -- a process that requires it to spend some money -- or it could tell the sender to sign up for certified e-mail. In one scenario, AOL spends money to keep e-mail working for the sender, and in the other it makes money. Which would you choose?
In working the customer service desk for Craigslist, Newmark often speaks to people who fight e-mail abuse at ISPs, including AOL. "The consensus there is what they really need are more resources dedicated to their existing tools and departments going after the bad guys," he says. The Goodmail system would divert those resources, Newmark fears. As Gilles Frydman, of the Association of Cancer Online Resources, puts it: "Have you ever seen a provider offer a better free service than a paid one?" Frydman adds that his organization, which sends out millions of messages over listservs with advice on how patients should deal with cancer diagnoses, has saved lives using free e-mail; under AOL's plan, he says, people could suffer and die because they may not receive important messages in a faulty, free e-mail system.
But Gingras says that people who think that AOL's certified e-mail program will damage free e-mail are overlooking one important factor: competition. If AOL users notice that their e-mail service is deteriorating -- if many messages from groups they care about are ending up in the spam folder because the sender didn't pay a delivery fee -- they'll switch to another e-mail system. In other words, AOL's got a great incentive to keep its free e-mail system working well -- it would lose customers if it didn't do so. Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for AOL, concurred, and insisted that AOL would not reduce the resources it invests in free e-mail once it starts offering certified e-mail.
Still, AOL's critics don't have much faith in the notion that competition from other mail systems will keep AOL's free e-mail system working well. For one thing, says Pariser of MoveOn, it isn't clear that AOL's users would notice that their free e-mail service is falling apart. They may not see that messages from groups they care about are going to the spam folder -- after all, who looks in the spam folder?
More important, AOL's plan, critics say, will prompt others to use systems like Goodmail. Yahoo, which has attempted to distance itself from the controversy over AOL's plans, will also start using Goodmail's system soon, though only for a small class of e-mail that it terms "transactional," meaning messages like bank statements or receipts, rather than straightforward sales pitches. If AOL begins to make money from the program, other ISPs will also start charging people to send e-mail -- they too would want to get on the gravy train.
"AOL is saying that if they go too far, people can switch," Green, of MoveOn, notes. "But no, they can't, because then Yahoo falls into line, and then Gmail, and then others, and the net effect is that those who can pay to send e-mail win, and those who want to start with a small idea and turn it into a big idea don't."
This certainly could happen. But if e-mail does become as tamped-down as Green worries it will, there will almost certainly be a market in offering an e-mail system in which free e-mail works really well. Thousands of companies provide e-mail service to people online today; any number of them could stake out an advantage in offering good quality free e-mail.
And the fact is, as Gingras points out, free e-mail today doesn't work well and something needs to be done about it. Frydman worries that, under AOL's plan, his groups' messages could end up in the spam folder. But that happens already; messages from his group that use the word "breast" have been erroneously caught by filters. Under the Goodmail plan, Frydman's group could, for a small fee, make sure that all its messages get through to people who need them. So, like paying the U.S. Postal Service extra to certify an important letter, perhaps paying a small sum to make sure your lifesaving e-mail message surfaces in the flood of spam isn't such a bad idea.