Saturday, March 04, 2006

AOL Announces a Change in Plans

On February 8, I blogged about AOL and Yahoo's plans to charge companies the electronic equivalent of a postage stamp to deliver their email.

The New York Times reported that both companies are "about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered."

I explained that there would be no charge for ordinary email traffic. The proposed change would create another class of email by which businesses that send massive numbers of emails can pay to "raise" their profile so that their messages go directly to your in-box and bypass the spam filter.

AOL and Yahoo have both signed agreements with Goodmail Systems, an email certification specialist. According to Internet News, "[e]very message that is sent through the Goodmail Certified Email service is embedded with a cryptographically secure token. These tokens must be detected by participating service providers before the message can be delivered to a recipient's inbox identified as a Certified Email message."

The Associated Press (AP) reported that a consortium of non-profit groups got together to complain that the proposed plan would "stifle communication from organizations that couldn't afford to pay." The diverse consortium of 70 non-profits included the Humane Society, the Democratic National Committee, Gun Owners of America, and the AFL-CIO. They created a website called and, on February 28, posted an open letter to AOL.

In part, the letter said, "AOL's 'email tax' is the first step down a slippery slope that will harm the Internet itself...the new two-tiered system AOL proposes would actually reward AOL financially for failing to maintain its email service...The moment AOL switches to a two-tiered Internet where giant emailers pay for preferential service, AOL will face a simple business choice: spend money to keep regular spam filters up-to-date, or make money by neglecting their spam filters and pushing more senders to pay for guaranteed delivery. Poor delivery of mail turns from being a problem that AOL has every incentive to fix to something that could actually make them money if the company ignores it."

It took less than three days for AOL to respond. The AP reported on Friday that "America Online Inc. said nonprofit organizations will not have to pay to send mass messages to their members after all."

AOL will offer non-profit groups a bulk email service comparable to the fee-for-service offered to commercial groups. AOL will pay the fees associated with this special non-profit service.

This was a great case of non-profits doing what they do best: advocacy. Only this time the cause they were advocating was their own. I was absolutely thrilled to see groups with differing agendas and diverse political opinions joining together to correct a problem. That's the true American spirit.

Thumbs up to both the non-profits and to AOL for being so quick to recognize a PR fiasco in the making.

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