June 12, 2007 | By Root User

Pay-To-Send Mail Spreads

As EFF members will recall, we were part of a large coalition of groups that raised serious concerns about the introduction of Goodmail, an email authentication and certification service that charges those who send email to guarantee delivery, splitting the money with the ISPs who are supposed to delivery you your email.

We were concerned that the trend to such pay-to-send email would spread, and would affect nonprofits and others who run large mailing lists who would face the choice of paying or not having their email delivered. We were also worried that this process was not easily visible to the recipients of email -- you and me -- who would not then be able to complain when their ISPs stopped delivering email except from those willing to pony up. We eventually reached a sort of detente with AOL and Yahoo about it, including promises from both that they would maintain their ordinary white-list processes that aren't based on payment but objective mailing practices.

Well, Goodmail continues to sign up ISPs, and now has announced Comcast, Cox, Verizon, and Roadrunner. They join AOL and Yahoo! in the CertifiedEmail program.

EFF's position on Goodmail's business model remains. Goodmail reduces the incentive for ISPs to improve spam filters, much less to give end users more control of the filters. It increases the incentives for ISPs to overblock, since they make money when more senders sign up for Goodmail. A mailbox provider's goals in dealing with unsolicited bulk email aren't necessarily the priorities of its end users to begin with, and Goodmail is a step in the wrong direction.

Verizon and Comcast are also worrisome additions to the CertifiedEmail family. Each has had a less than stellar approach to mailblocking. In the past, it's been easy to get on, and difficult to get off both Verizon and Comcast's overbroad blacklists. Users have often been kept in the dark about their filtering practices. Cox has recently been accused of silently dropping its own customers' outgoing emails, even when reporting spam to outside parties. (Roadrunner at least has a public policy, and offers mitigation for blacklisting errors, like a feedback loop for senders.)

It is also worrisome because, as broadband providers, Verizon and Comcast are likely to be even less sensitive to end user concerns about receiving emails than ISPs like Yahoo and AOL, for whom mail delivery is a key feature of the service.

Those who remain with their ISP email address have probably never made an active choice of email provider, and are simply using the default provided with their broadband hook-up. They're the last to know, and often the last to be told, that their incoming and sometimes outgoing mail is scanned, filtered, and even dropped without warning.

When last year we asked AOL to abandon its revenue share with Goodmail, we noted that it was less the decline in AOL's deliverability and responsiveness to its subscribers that we were concerned with, but those who followed in its footsteps: ISPs who had less to lose, and more to gain from turning their anti-spam policies into a revenue source, and letting their dedication to mass email deliverability decline. We've heard with some concern that Yahoo! (another Goodmail user) has been taking a far more aggressive line in delaying or rejecting mass mailers since October of last year. What will happen now that the program has expanded to companies whose track record with white and blacklisting is shadier, and whose incentives to maintain high mail deliverability are lower?

We're always interested in hearing from noncommercial email senders who run into problems with their email delivery. Contact us at info@eff.org if you've been unable to resolve problems with blocking intermediaries when sending your noncommercial mass email.

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