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Protest Over AOL's Pay-to-Send E-mail Plan

UPDATED: If politics makes strange bedfellows, "certified e-mail" is making a lot of disparate groups downright kinky.

This afternoon, groups from across the political spectrum -- from the Gun Owners of America to MoveOn.org to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) -- will all bed down together to rise up against America Online's (AOL) plan to charge for certain classes of e-mail.

"Under AOL's recently announced proposal, large e-mailers willing to pay an 'e-mail tax' can bypass spam filters and get guaranteed access to people's inboxes -- with their messages having a preferential high-priority designation," an EFF statement claims.

AOL does not see the proposal as a tax on e-mail users.

In early February, AOL said the idea is to guarantee certified bulk mailers a fee for free passage through the company's filters and other anti-spam devices.

AOL maintains the plan adds a "voluntary, additional layer of e-mail delivery" for assurance that the e-mail will be delivered. The company also adamantly insists that AOL will maintain it free e-mail service, along with the AOL Whitelist and Enhanced WhiteList.

In announcing the plan, AOL said it had already signed up the New York Times and the American Red Cross as customers for the new service.

Yahoo is considering the same idea and, like AOL, maintains the idea will decrease the spam and identity fraud scams that plague the Internet.

"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," said Yahoo spokesperson Karen Mahon. "In the coming months, Yahoo will test an optional certified e-mail program based on transactional messages only, such as bank statments and purchase receipts, as an additional layer of protection against scams and phishing attacks."

The end results, though, the new coalition maintains, will be the same: "Charities, small businesses, civic organizing groups and even families with mailing lists will have no guarantee that their e-mail will be delivered unless they are willing to pay the 'e-mail tax' to AOL."

While the EFF and Free Press are co-hosting the Tuesday afternoon press teleconference, MoveOn.org is the organizing force behind the movement.

Last week, MoveOn e-mailed a petition to all of its three million members to rally support against the AOL proposal.

"AOL, don't auction off preferential access to people's inboxes to giant e-mailers, while leaving people's friends, families and favorite causes wondering if their e-mails are being delivered at all," the petition states.

"The Internet is a force for democracy and economic innovation only because it is open to all Internet users equally -- we must not let it become an unlevel playing field."

As of Friday, more than 200,000 MoveOn members had signed the petition.

"AOL's proposed pay-to-send system is the first step down the slippery slope toward dividing the Internet into two classes of users -- those who get preferential treatment and those who are left behind," a MoveOn.org statement claims.

"The Internet is a force for democracy and economic innovation because it is open to all Internet users equally."

Updates to add comments from Yahoo.