By Yinka Adegoke
Four years ago, a small e-mail campaign saved a struggling coffee shop
in Portland, Oregon.
Today proprietor Becky Bilyeu is among the thousands of people
fighting to preserve the free flow of electronic mail.
Bilyeu contacted the MoveOn.org political advocacy group earlier this
spring when she heard that Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, the largest
U.S. Internet service provider, planned to start charging for
guaranteed delivery of certain types of bulk e-mail.
The fee -- a small fraction of a cent per e-mail -- took effect two
weeks ago. AOL says it will help stop spam, or junk messages, from
clogging their customers' inboxes.
But many say e-mail should move freely so that people can build and
maintain large communities over the Web. Nearly 500 organizations,
from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Gun Owners of America,
have joined together to create a coalition called DearAOL.com
The coalition predicts Internet service providers could effectively end up
taxing nonprofit organizations and charities for e-mail in the same way that
businesses now are by AOL.
AOL vigorously disputes the claim.
"There will be no requirement, ever, for not-for-profits who deliver e-mail
to AOL members to pay for e-mail certification and delivery," spokesman
Nicholas Graham said.
Still, the controversy prompted California state Sen. Dean Florez, a
Democrat, to hold a hearing on the fee structure in early April. A Senate
committee plans to monitor the AOL program and could take the company and
its vendor to task if nonprofit groups start experiencing widespread
Meanwhile, Bilyeu, 39, says small businesses should also be exempt from the
In 2002, she turned to the 50 subscribers of her weekly e-mail newsletter to
let them know that financial troubles could force her coffee shop to close.
Over the next four days, they donated more than $3,000 -- enough to keep her
Facing off against formidable competitors like Starbucks Corp., she still
relies on her e-mail list to keep her customers coming back.
"I don't make any money so I can't afford to pay to send out e-mail," she
said. " ... I don't want to have to pay to guarantee (that customers) get my
little newsletter when I'm already paying AOL $15 a month."
For e-mail providers like AOL, the challenge is stopping spam and
phishing e-mails, which trick users into revealing passwords and
financial information, without preventing legitimate bulk messages
from getting through. The company believes the answer is e-mail that
it authenticates in return for a fee from the sender.
AOL worked with a company called Goodmail to offer certified
e-mail. The service ensures the delivery of images and hyperlinks on
most high-volume mailings.
Graham, the AOL spokesman, said the program was going well, and the
company expected more senders to use it to transmit important e-mails,
such as financial information, to its members.
Yahoo Inc. is also testing Goodmail, strictly for what it calls
"transactional" messages, such as bank statements and purchase
receipts. The Web portal company said it had no plans to charge
customers to send and receive such e-mails.
Consumer activists, however, say any move to charge for e-mail will
eventually lead to a two-tier system that would stifle communication
in organizations that have benefited from free delivery.
The Association of Cancer Online Resources, which sends out more than
1.5 million e-mails a week to patients around the world, has been a
prominent supporter of DearAOL.com. Founder Gilles Frydman said he was
driven by a desire for "open standards" on the Web as e-mail has
helped patients and health officials access free medical research on
cancer treatments around the world.
Frydman said free e-mail had helped the association, which relies on
private donations, to "do tremendous work for very little."
Kay Barre, pastor of St Paul's United Methodist Church in Tarzana,
California, said she sometimes sent up to a dozen messages a week to
"Some church organizations have thousands of members on their
e-lists," she said. "How can they ever afford these kinds of fees? In
the first place, how does having a company pay a fee to bypass spam
filters solve the spam problem?"
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an activist body for the
protection of consumers' digital rights, acknowledges the challenge of
coping with spam while maintaining free e-mail. But activism
coordinator Danny O'Brien doesn't see the new fees as a solution.
In fact, he said Internet service providers could establish the fees
as a revenue stream and not work so hard on their spam filters.
"If people paid Goodmail and not the ISPs," O'Brien said, "then you'd
have this separation of powers because the ISPs would still be
incentivized to reduce the amount of spam they're getting."
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Let's see now ... a 'fraction of a
penny' per each piece of email might cost all of a dollar or so on
a large mailing such as a church. It _might_ (not sure of the figures
here) cost this Digest all of a dollar per day. Oh my goodness, that
is really going to bankrupt me! (sarcasm mode). I wonder why the
coffee shop owner mentioned or the pastor are not placing the blame
where it really belongs, on the spammers/scammers who made it all
a reality? Why are they choosing to blame AOL? Is it an easier
target? AOL is just flowing with the times, the way things are these
days. I can tell you that if the spam is not cut back it is going to
make it very difficult to continue this Digest. I would be glad to
pay a buck or two to have the spam eliminated or greatly cut back.