Unlikely Allies Against ‘E-mail Tax’

What possibly could bring together the Democratic National Committee and the pro-gun lobby? A common cause: money. More specifically, a plan that could cost them to send e-mail.

More than 50 groups across the political spectrum are voicing concern about plans by major ISPs to charge for “certified e-mail.” The groups say the plan could create a two-tiered Internet.

As previously reported by internetnews.com, AOL in the coming months will begin charging a fraction of a penny or more per message in what they claim is an attempt to decrease the spam and identity fraud scams that plague the Internet, according to AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham.

Graham said AOL will retain its free e-mail services, the AOL Whitelist and Enhanced Whitelist. However, AOL plans to add a “voluntary, additional layer of e-mail delivery” that will make it possible for companies to buy a sort of digital postage stamp — from a quarter of a cent to one penny per message — for assurance that their e-mail will be delivered to their customers.

The plan has galvanized unlikely allies to protest the plan.

The Coalition to Stop the AOL Email Tax touts more than 50 organizations sending millions of e-mails to 15 million members.

“E-mail communication is the lifeblood of our work,” said Tim Karr, Campaign Director with FreePress, during a telephone conference Tuesday. As part of the protest, the organizations have created a Web site (www.dearaol.com) and an online petition.

Since Friday, MoveOn.org, a liberal political advocacy group perhaps best known for energizing support for Democratic Party causes, collected more than 200,000 signatures to the petition. MoveOn.org, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are leading a protest against a proposal to charge e-mailers to reach the inboxes of AOL members.

“As Internet advocacy groups, charities, non-profits, businesses, civic organizing groups, and e-mail experts, we ask you to reconsider your pay-to-send proposal and keep the Internet free,” their statement said.

Certified e-mail “is the first step down a slippery slope that will harm the Internet itself,” the group’s statement continued.

Although they stopped short of calling for a boycott, “the more people find out about this, the more that will take their business elsewhere,” Karr said.

On average, 20-25 percent of an organization’s emails go to AOL addresses, according to EFF’s Danny O’Brien.

Gilles Frydman, president of the Association of Online Cancer Resources (ACOR), another member of the coalition, claims any preferential treatment of “certified” e-mail could hurt cancer patients. The move “could potentially block AOL subscribers from getting life-saving email,” Frydman told reporters. Each week, ACOR sends 1.5 million emails.

While AOL has said non-paying email will not be affected, today’s group of organizations isn’t so sure. “The bottom-line is that charging an ‘e-mail tax’ actually gives AOL a financial incentive to degrade e-mail for non-paying senders,” the group claimed.
P>Although MoveOn.org, with 3 million members, could likely afford to pay for certified e-ail, it is considered out of reach for small organizations just starting, according to political group’s president, Eli Pariser.

Gun Owners of America, another member of the effort to stall the e-mail change, has used its mailing list rally against the plan. When asked how much he is willing to pay for e-mailing AOL members, Gun Owners of America leader Larry Pratt said he’d refuse to pay anything.

GoodMail, which created the “certified e-mail” service, sent reporters quotes defending its position and questioned the motives of the stop-AOL coalition.

“Non-profits who see the benefits of the service will be able to try the service for free throughout 2006,” according to the Goodmail statement. After 2006, Goodmail will offer non-profits “generous discounts.”

“The naysayers have gotten very operatic,” AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham told internetnews.

“We believe more choices, and more alternatives, for safety and e-mail authentication is a good thing for the internet, not bad,” AOL said in a statement responding to the ruckus.

“We take great pride that AOL’s exceptional, industry-leading email policies have played a key role in helping deliver emails that have provided a voice and platform for political discourse and charitable fundraising on the internet, which has included coming to the aid of the sometimes troubled email delivery efforts by organizations like MoveOn.org, and many others.”

AOL’s certified e-mail program is “dead on arrival” and will likely generate a firestorm of protest, countered David Hughes, CEO of anti-spam company Reflextion Network Solutions.

Hughes called it ironic how AOL, after spending money to increase its anti-spam infrastructure, is now offering marketers ways to avoid it.

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