Feuding for Free E-mail
For a few months now, you’ve been hearing about plans by companies such as AOL and Yahoo! to apply a new business model to Internet communications to afford e-mail senders a secure way to communicate with potential customers. Goodmail recently unveiled a certified e-mail program that AOL and Yahoo! plan to make available to e-mail senders that allows them to bypass spam filters for a fee and get guaranteed access to recipients’ inboxes.
Everyone can agree that a typical user’s e-mail inbox can accept only a few hundred e-mails before the user turns off the computer out of sheer frustration, and companies are looking for ways to assure users that their incoming messages are from legitimate sources. Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras has stated, “It’s very important that e-mail is only available to highly qualified senders who have a pristine record of sending behavior.” Spamming, phishing and other Internet charades must be prevented.
But little did these companies expect to be clashing with the very essence of the Internet revolution itself — that communications over the Internet should be free and unencumbered to allow for growth of the new communications frontier and to foster free expression. These companies seem to believe they have a legitimate role to play to help recipients sort through their cluttered e-mail inboxes.
Many nonprofits and consumer groups are extremely concerned that these companies are going too far and creating a new, uneven playing field for organizations and individuals who want to speak to potential donors/activists/supporters without:
- needing to have their organizations’ legitimacy questioned by a for-profit entity;
- being assessed a charge for such services; or
- being left off the information superhighway as “spammers” if they decide not to participate.
What about nonprofits?
Due to these concerns, in early March AOL announced it would offer “qualified” nonprofit organizations two new ways to more securely deliver e-mail messages to AOL members. Under this new option, qualifying nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups will receive the full functionality of AOL’s e-mail system, including having images and Web links
enabled in e-mail, and delivery to e-mail boxes of AOL users at no charge to either the sender or recipients.
But adding the phrase “qualifying” to such an offering is like waving a red flag to these organizations, many of which spend most of their time “qualifying” under the complex schemes of state, local and federal regulations. This new sweet song hasn’t pleased some nonprofit advocates, who remain suspicious of the true intent of these companies. According to AOL, the term “qualifying” means the IRS has awarded the organization tax-exempt status. Then, the nonprofit either can qualify for AOL’s Enhanced Whitelist — an internal system that ensures the organization meets certain technical and anti-spam standards — or it can apply for an approved, third-party accreditation program that sets similar, high technical and anti-spam standards, according to AOL. AOL also says it will cover any “one-time” certification costs associated with the program. (See www.postmaster.aol.com for more details.)