AOL in Spat Over Certified E-Mail 'Tax'

AOL shot back at interest groups attempting to block its implementation of Goodmail, accusing them of spreading misinformation about the Certified Mail feature. The company also said it would implement Goodmail next month, calling it a "timely and necessary safety and security measure."

In exchange for paying a small fee of a quarter of a cent to one cent per message, the sender would be guaranteed delivery and the e-mail would be marked as legitimate in the header. Participation is not mandatory, however companies who don't pay will receive no assurance that their e-mails are getting through.

A group of nearly five dozen organizations and individuals, including Moveon.org, Tim O'Reilly, Chris Pirillo, Oxfam America, and the Democratic National Committee signed an open letter to AOL accusing it of creating a "two-tier" Internet.

Before Certified Mail, entities big and small could ensure their e-mails were making it to the recipient, the signatories claim. With the new plan in place, large corporations could pay to ensure their mass e-mails are sent to consumers while smaller ones are left behind.

The group called the program the creation of an "e-mail tax," and said it was the beginning of a closing of the doors to an open Internet. "A pay-to-send system won't help the fight against spam - in fact, this plan assumes that spam will continue and that mass mailers will be willing to pay to have their emails bypass spam filters," it claimed.

The Dulles, Virginia-based ISP was also accused of rewarding itself for failing to maintain its e-mail service. The group says consumers are being forced to trust that AOL would continue to maintain its spam filters after the implementation of Certified Mail.

In a statement to the press Tuesday, AOL rebuffed those claims, saying this type of program and structure is nothing new. The company pointed to Microsoft, which first implemented the "Bonded Sender" for its MSN and Hotmail e-mail accounts in May 2004 -- and then again when it registered for "Habeas" in June 2005.

Similarly, several other companies have implemented similar features, including Apple, Charter, Earthlink, GMail, Juno and Yahoo among others, AOL said.

"The realities and facts of the situation deserve a fair airing," argued AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham. "AOL is moving from a dual layer of spam and phishing protection for our members to a beneficial tri-layer system of e-mail delivery - with the additional layer being optional, voluntary, and at absolutely no cost to the email recipient."

AOL argued that the term "e-mail tax" was a mischaracterization of the Goodmail service, and participation is voluntary. It also pointed to its whitelist program, which it said several of the signatories to the letter have benefited from. The company said it would continue to work with non-profit organizations to ensure e-mail delivery.

AOL also rebuffed claims it would make money off the enterprise, equating it to "as much of a revenue stream as setting up a lemonade stand on the corner," adding that users would continue to have the final say in what e-mails they receive. AOL reminded its critics that Goodmail would only register those senders who could prove they had a pre-existing commercial relationship with their users.

Yahoo also voiced support for Goodmail's Certified e-mail program, which it intends to implement as well.

"Companies can continue to send e-mail to Yahoo! Mail users at no cost in exactly the same way they always have, and we are not planning to require payment to ensure delivery to our users," Yahoo spokesperson Karen Mahon said.

"In the coming months, Yahoo! will test an optional certified e-mail program based on 'transactional' messages only, such as bank statements and purchase receipts, as an additional layer of protection against e-mail identity theft scams known as phishing attacks," which would be based on Goodmail Systems.

Mahon added that Yahoo's approach is slightly different from that of AOL, and so far they had not been the target of any actions from MoveOn.org or other interest groups.

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