March 20, 2006 | By Derek Slater

Dyson Admits What AOL Won't: "Pretty Soon Sending Most E-Mail Will Cost Money"

The momentum against AOL's misguided pay-to-send email scheme continues to grow. Our DearAOL coalition has grown to over 500 organizations and more than 300,000 email users have signed petitions opposing the plan. A California state senator is scheduling hearings, and many prominent consumer protection groups have joined in raising their concerns.

Unfortunately, Esther Dyson wrote a New York Times op-ed supporting the plan. Washington policy group the Center for Democracy and Technology also sadly gave a tentative nod to Goodmail, essentially trusting that AOL will not follow its economic incentives. These articles sidestep many of our concerns, and, when they take them up head-on, they often confirm our worst fears.

Dyson actually agrees with our coalition's fundamental point, which AOL has always tried to deny: "pretty soon sending most e-mail will cost money," and this scheme is just the first step down that path. We feel that the introduction of paid email, encouraged by major ISPs, threatens the free and open Internet as we know it and its benefits to free speech, civic organizing, and economic innovation. Free to send email is a feature, not a bug.

Dyson thinks you should embrace this brave new world of paid email because it will help stop phishing. But phishing won't stop because email is paid for, and AOL could implement a "certification" system like Goodmail's without taking a cut -- reducing AOL's economic incentive to degrade the quality of free email. EFF would like to see a healthy market in "certification" or "authentication" systems. AOL's decision to choose one system -- and take a financial cut that increases the more people use the chosen system -- undermines this market. It also shifts AOL's priorities away from its customers interests in receiving all their email.

CDT explicitly acknowledges the risks pay-to-send mail poses to the Internet and says it deserves "ongoing scrutiny." However, like Dyson, CDT thinks that market competition will ameliorate any harm. But the market speaks slowly -- in the meantime, this system will push speakers into a choice of paying AOL, or running the risk that AOL's anti-spam filters will prevent delivery of their messages. And recipients often -- by definition -- won't know what mail they are not receiving, making it difficult for the market to work. The picture gets worse once every email provider has their own chosen pay-to-send scheme.

Dyson's right about one thing -- if AOL users themselves got to determine how to treat certified email and senders could choose from many competing certifiers judged on their merits rather than their paybacks, that wouldn't be so worrisome. Unfortunately, that's not what AOL is doing. Instead of empowering users, AOL's chosen to sell off access to its customers email boxes and keep the money for itself.


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