February 8, 2006 | By Cindy Cohn

AOL, Yahoo and Goodmail: Taxing Your Email for Fun and Profit

Remember the famous email rumor that made the rounds in the 1990s: "Congress is trying to tax your Internet connection, write in now!"

Well what wasn't true in the 1990s is apparently coming true in 2006, only the beneficiaries won't be Uncle Sam -- it will be Yahoo, AOL, and a company ironically called Goodmail. Yahoo and AOL have announced that they will guarantee access to your email inbox for email senders who pay $.0025 per message. They will override their own spam filters and webbug-strippers, and deliver the mail directly with a "certified" notice. In the process, they will treat more of your email as spam, and email you're expecting won't be delivered.

The justification is that if people have to pay to send email, they won't send junk email. Apparently AOL and Yahoo believe that if we "tax" speech then only desirable speech happens. We all know how well that works for postal mail -- that's why no one gets any "free" AOL starter disks, right?

More seriously, as we discuss below, this isn't really an anti-spam measure as much as a "pay to speak" email measure, and it won't end spam or phishing. Prominent anti-spammer Richard Cox of Spamhaus agrees: "an e-mail charge will destroy the spirit of the Internet."

(Read on for more after the jump.)

Email being basically free isn't a bug. It's a feature that has driven the digital revolution. It allows groups to scale up from a dozen friends to a hundred people who love knitting to half-a-million concerned citizens without a major bankroll.

Email readers and senders will both lose, because the incentives for Yahoo, AOL, and Goodmail are all wrong. Their service is only valuable if it "saves" you from their spam filters. In turn, they have an incentive to treat more of your email as spam, thereby encouraging people to sign up.

Even email senders who just want to reach Dad@aol.com may eventually be in trouble. Once a pay-to-speak system like this gets going, it will be increasingly difficult for people who don't pay to get their mail through. The system has no way to distinguish between ordinary mail and bulk mail, spam and non-spam, personal and commercial mail. It just gives preference to people who pay.

And prepare to be shaken down if you run a noncommercial mailing list, whether for local bowling leagues or political organizations with a national membership. Not only will the per-message fees quickly add up, but the Goodmail technology will also be costly for senders to setup and use. Goodmail's giving a "special offer" for nonprofits through 2006, but when that ends their messages will presumably end up in the trash, too.

If email senders bear a burden, who gains? Not Yahoo and AOL customers, whose email boxes are being sold off. It will presumably be harder for even desired email to reach them.

In return, customers probably will now get not one but two helpings of spam. For only $.0025 cent per message, Yahoo and AOL will guarantee delivery of this extra-special "certified" paid-placement mail, served alongside your ordinary spam. They'll also preserve webbugs, little privacy invaders that report back when you look at the email. Goodmail says that it will ensure that the messages aren't spam, but it's not clear how they will enforce this. After all if a foolproof way for a third-party to distinguish wanted from unwanted messages existed, we would have solved the spam problem long ago.

What about phishing? Remember, the problem with phishing is that ordinary end users cannot always tell when a "certification" is real. Spoofing the appearance of Goodmail certification to end users should not be much of a problem, and all of the encryption in the world won't fix that.

Spam is a real problem demanding real solutions, but taxing the Internet, even if the tax is "voluntary" and even if the money goes to ISPs, isn't one of them. The best solution is to put more power in the hands of users to control spam filters and a robust market in those filters. Allowing ISPs to auction off access to email boxes and ransom free speech solves nothing.

EFF is working on an extended and more technical description of the problems with Goodmail, but this is a bad idea we think should be nipped in the bud. We urge AOL and Yahoo subscribers and those who communicate with them, to tell them that taxing email is not the right way to go.

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