EFF rallies opposition against AOL’s pay-for-play email system

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EFF rallies opposition against AOL's pay-for-play email system

A group of unlikely allies has banded together to stop AOL’s pay-for-play email proposal. In a conference call today hosted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Free Press media policy group, several organizations voiced their opposition against AOL’s intention to start charging for guaranteed delivery of certain emails. The groups, which include the conservative Gun Owners of America and the liberal MoveOn.org, contend that AOL’s proposal to start charging $0.0025 for each guaranteed email causes a big financial burden for not-for-profit organizations. In addition, attendees said AOL’s system could curtail free speech and block life-saving saving information.

Earlier this month AOL proposed a new email system based on Goodmail’s cryptographic CertifiedEmail program. The system will embed cryptographic tokens into each email, which are then decoded by AOL’s email program. The new system, which will only give the tokens to companies that have a good track record of emails, will replace AOL’s older IP address-based “Enhanced Whitelist” email system. AOL also wants to charge on a per email-based system to defray the cost of managing the system.

Danny O’Brien from the Electronic Frontier Foundation says the new system will “reward AOL financially for degrading free email” and could be the first sign of a “very dangerous move.” He adds that anti-spam measures are necessary, but that overly-enthusiastic anti-spam measures could cause collateral damage. O’Brien’s sentiments were echoed by Timothy Karr of the Free Press policy group who said that email communications is the “life-blood” of his 225,000 member strong organization, of whom 23% have AOL email addresses and would be affected by the system. “There needs to be a level playing field,” Karr says and that email shouldn’t be, “A luxury to be sold off to the highest bidder.”

The fraction of a penny charged for each email would obviously affect non-profit organizations that send out millions of emails per week. Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, is opposed to AOL’s email proposal and said that some of his members may boycott AOL if the system is implemented. “If they pull the trigger, pardon the pun, that would be our response,” says Pratt. Gilles Frydman from the Association of Cancer Online Resources added that AOL’s move could actually block life-saving information. Frydman’s organization provides free cancer survival information to 55,000 patients and sends a million and a half emails a week. He also questions AOL’s claim that the free email would not be affected by saying, “I don’t know about you but have you ever seen a free service of equal quality of the paid service?”

Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, says that the extra cost of sending email to the organization’s hundreds of thousands of AOL subscribers would be “considerable” and amount to thousands of dollars per week. However, he says it’s not just the non-profit groups that will be hurt, but other grass-roots campaigns that are trying to get off the ground. “The real tragedy is the little guy that is just getting started. We can probably afford it, but what about the someone trying to turn a small idea into a big idea,” says Pariser.

AOL’s system isn’t the only fee-based email system that has been proposed, so why is the EFF and other organizations only going after AOL? Yahoo has also floated the idea, but O’Brien has talked to company executives and says Yahoo hasn’t decided whether to proceed, adding that they are, “much more tentative about it.” AOL, on the other hand, seems to already have made up their mind and have, “planted the flag in the ground about it,” said O’Brien.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and allied organizations have posted an open letter to AOL at the website www.dearaol.com. So far, it is only the Gun Owners of America that has hinted at a boycott of AOL. Other organizations in the conference call said that they will, “keep all options open”.

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