An Open Letter To America Online

The times they are a-changin’.

This post seems to be older than 15 years—a long time on the internet. It might be outdated.

I’ve railed against AOL for sometime now, but this takes the cake. And no, this is not that hoax letter that has been circulating the Internet for the last 10 years that everyone, you, and your grandma have all recieved saying that AOL is going to start charging for AOL Instant Messenger. This one is quite real, my friends. Via Chris Pirillo over at Lockergnome:

Date: Tue Feb 28 13:00:00 EST 2006
Subject: An Open Letter To America Online

We wish to express our serious concern with AOL’s adoption of Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail, which is a threat to the free and open Internet.

This system would create a two-tiered Internet in which affluent mass emailers could pay AOL a fee that amounts to an “email tax” for every email sent, in return for a guarantee that such messages would bypass spam filters and go directly to AOL members’ inboxes. Those who did not pay the “email tax” would increasingly be left behind with unreliable service. Your customers expect that your first obligation is to deliver all of their wanted mail, and this plan is a step away from that obligation.

AOL’s “email tax” is the first step down a slippery slope that will harm the Internet itself. The Internet is a revolutionary force for free speech, civic organizing, and economic innovation precisely because it is open and accessible to all Internet users equally. On a free and open Internet, small ideas can become big ideas overnight. As Internet advocacy groups, charities, non-profits, businesses, civic organizing groups, and email experts, we ask you to reconsider your pay-to-send proposal and to keep the Internet free.

A pay-to-send system won’t help the fight against spam – in fact, this plan assumes that spam will continue and that mass mailers will be willing to pay to have their emails bypass spam filters. And non-paying spammers will not reduce the amount of mail they throw at your filters simply because others pay to evade them.

Perversely, the new two-tiered system AOL proposes would actually reward AOL financially for failing to maintain its email service. The chief advantage of paying to send CertifiedEmail is that it can bypass AOL’s spam filters. Non-paying customers are being asked to trust that after paid mail goes into effect, AOL will properly maintain its spam filters so only unwanted mail gets thrown away.

But the economic incentives point the other way: The moment AOL switches to a two-tiered Internet where giant emailers pay for preferential service, AOL will face a simple business choice: spend money to keep regular spam filters up-to-date, or make money by neglecting their spam filters and pushing more senders to pay for guaranteed delivery. Poor delivery of mail turns from being a problem that AOL has every incentive to fix to something that could actually make them money if the company ignores it.

The bottom-line is that charging an “email tax” actually gives AOL a financial incentive to degrade email for non-paying senders. This would disrupt the communications of millions who cannot afford to pay your fees-including the non-profits, civic organizations, charities, small businesses, and community mailing lists that have arisen for every topic under the sun and that make email so vital to your subscribers.

And what if other Internet service providers retaliate and start demanding their own ransoms to accept mail from your millions of users? Your company works hard to simplify the Internet. Don’t start a surcharge war that will complicate it with tiered services and dozens of middleman fees for every simple act of communication.

We have always been happy working together with you to fight spam and phishing. We have a common enemy in spammers. We are happy to work together to develop open approaches that attack the problem of spam and phishing. But a pay-to-send “certified” system does not help to fight spam. It only serves to make the Internet less free for everyone. We stand together in asking you to reconsider your decision to use CertifiedEmail.


Andrew Ferguson, Fergcorp, and Countless Others

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1 thought on “An Open Letter To America Online”

  1. Fergie:

    For some reason you cannot grasp that the internet is not a right but a privilege.

    Services such as AOL are services that an individual pays to access. AIM can be downloaded and used free for non-members.

    If AOL chooses to allow companies to access their “customer base”, that’s their prerogative. I would hope that they would allow individuals the option of opting out of the program which is no different than what the direct mail industry has done for years. It is also in place for the telemarketing industry, but it was forced down their throats by congress since they could not police themselves.

    If you are unhappy with this supposed turn of events, you have other choices. You can easily switch over to another service. If you have enough subscribers jumping ship, they will jettison the program quickly.

    I have a lot of pet peeves regarding the entertainment industry. I cannot stand the 20 minutes of commercials at the begging of a movie at a theatre. It pisses me off that they have no found their way to DVD’s too. What about the Sony debacle? That one just about takes the cake.

    Bottom line is this. If you are not a paying member of AOL and you use AIM for free, then you have nothing to bitch about. If you are a paying member and find this objectionable (I do), then you two options. Move on to another service or put up with it. Again, hopefully they will be smart and offer the member the ability to opt out.

    By the way, congrats on Boeing.

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