The latest post on DearAOL's blog, by EFF activist coordinator Danny O'Brien, is titled "The Shakedown Begins".
In short, Danny receives email from overstock.com on an AOL mailbox — email that he apparently paid overstock $29.95 to receive. And that email arrives with Goodmail certification that AOL recognizes and flags as such. Danny seems to think this is not the sort of email that should be certified by Goodmail, and that AOL should not suddenly turn on Goodmail certification.
Suddenly? Come on, DearAOL.com has been around since Feb 2006 — that's what, four months now that AOL has been saying they'll do it?
The EFF is, unfortunately, grasping at straws here. Personally speaking, if I paid $29.95 for something that was supposed to arrive by email, I'd want to be quite sure I got it in my mailbox. And I certainly would not thank my ISP for filtering email that I paid for as spam.
And if I was a bulk mailer sending a particular email only to people who paid me $29.95, well, I'd have to be pretty stupid to send that email out to people who didn't pay me that money.
This can be said to fall into the same category as (say) airline tickets that you buy online and get in your email, or bank statements — these are transactional.
As I pointed out in an earlier, long debate with Danny on Declan McCullagh's Politechbot, such email is a quite good candidate for Goodmail certification, in that bulk senders are going to be quite willing to pay extra to ensure that their email that they send out to paying customers is actually delivered, and not mistaken for spam.
As a corollary, the way AOL has integrated Goodmail's reputation checks also provides a certain amount of assurance to AOL email users that the email they are receiving is actually from that organization and not from a phisher — but this is a completely secondary benefit.
To be perfectly fair, Danny points out in a comment on his DearAOL.com post that why yes, the email he got was solicited, and cost $29.95 but:
> Even so, AOL never stated that Certified Mail would be restricted to
> just transactional mail. The big question here is: what kind of mail
> do companies want to pay ISPs to accept?
Simple answer. Certified Mail, with all the criteria that AOL (and more importantly, AOL's users) and Goodmail seem to be asking for, is open to any bulk email that the sender is pretty damn sure the recipients signed up for AND want to get in their mailbox.
What I did point out in that thread is that the economic model that Goodmail introduces is only going to be feasible for senders of bulk transactional mail like airline tickets or overstock promotions that you pay $29.95 to signup for.
The EFF's position is that this represents a new model where only commercial bulk senders who pay extra will get their messages reliably delivered, and that non-commercial bulk mailers (such as political activist groups) are not going to get the same privilege as they can't/won't pay for Goodmail certification.
That, in my opinion, is a gross mischaracterization of the situation. Goodmail is just one of the ways to get email through to AOL without being filtered out. There is another, far simpler way — that of making sure that the email that is sent out by the non commercial entity is solicited by the people who receive it.
Email from non-commercial senders like political action groups, or popular mailing lists like CircleID / Dave Farber's IP list, or person to person email from someone to their friends, relatives and colleagues on AOL accounts, would also get through to AOL just fine. But as long as the percentage of spam reports to total email volumes sent by the sender to AOL users remains at acceptably low levels.
I work for a large ISP, with over 40 million users. Our servers send millions of emails a day to AOL — all one to one email from our users, plus it must be said, a certain percentage of spam, because some of our users are spammers who signup to abuse our service.
We don't like spam any more than AOL does, and it is in our interest to ensure that some of our users don't spam AOL, or any other ISP. A very visible consequence of what happens if my team slips up in filtering spam is that our servers may get blocked as sources of spam, thus inconveniencing all our users, who won't be able to send email because of the misdeeds of a small fraction of our users.
So we put in place several active and passive methods to detect and mitigate outbound spam and to deactivate spammer accounts as quickly as possible. We further sign up to AOL's feedback loop, which you use and are quite familiar with, helps us identify and boot spammers. All these steps ensure that AOL users get far, far more legitimate email than spam from our servers, and AOL, by itself, remains confident that we are capable of handling any spam issues that arise on our servers.
That keeps us immune from AOL's filters just fine, without us, or our users, having to pay a thin dime to Goodmail or any other email certification service.
Similarly, as I said, legitimate senders of bulk email need not pay AOL or Goodmail anything at all. All they have to do is to ensure that email they send out is solicited by its recipients, so that very few people report their email as spam, and all such cases are handled promptly.
That very same criterion does apply to senders that sign up to Goodmail — the only difference being that they pay extra for a certain amount of third party assurance that they comply with standards that AOL finds acceptable in order to relax their filtering and treat their email as trusted. In return, Goodmail certified providers agree to comply what appears to be AOL's most stringent set of standards on solicited email.
Sadly, the EFF and the DearAOL.com coalition have chosen to regard this as attempted blackmail by AOL and Goodmail, and they have so far released a series of press releases, white papers and blog posts on this subject over the last few months. All of these have uniformly repeated the catch phrase "shakedown" whenever they discuss this issue.
I have my own reservations about pay to send models for email, mainly due to their scalability and feasibility when deployed globally, but these do have a certain niche demand — mostly among senders of high value transactional email who typically have a contractual obligation to the receiver, having accepted money and agreed to provide a particular service by email (a ticket, a bank statement, a newsletter with discounts, whatever).
Fulfilling that demand does not appear to be blackmail, or characterizable as blackmail, and I consider it grossly improper for the EFF to conduct a sustained propaganda campaign that seems solely aimed at convincing the general public that AOL is out to blackmail them and impose an illegal tax on their email, as if they were protection racketeers shaking down citizens and small businesses.
Propaganda has been a highly valued tool of any political advocacy campaign, irrespective of whether it is right leaning or left. However, at the risk of invoking Godwin's law, it appears clear to me that the EFF has not forgotten one of the long standing dictums of propaganda…
"But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success."
* actually from "War Propaganda", in volume 1, chapter 6 of Mein Kampf (1925), by Adolph Hitler
I don't for a moment intend to compare the EFF to Hitler. That is not my intention. My intention here is solely to express my distaste for the virulence of this persistent propaganda campaign that seems solely aimed at convincing the general public that AOL is out to blackmail them.
By Suresh Ramasubramanian, Architect, Antispam and Compliance
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