Spamalot Revisited: Goodmail Trapped in Bad Debate

Despite national legislation, spam remains a menace that clogs e-mail inboxes and costs Internet Service Providers millions of dollars. One California company is trying to stem the flow of unwanted mail, but California legislators are threatening to stand in the way.

AOL has partnered withGoodmail Systems to offer its customers a service called “CertifiedEmail,” which is designed to protect users from phishing and other online fraud. This is a good idea, yet the California Senate Committee on E-Commerce, Wireless Technology and Consumer Driven Programming, led by Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) is second-guessing the concept.

E-Mail Tax

According to the Goodmail Web site, “CertifiedEmail service offers legitimate, accredited senders the opportunity to assure their messages are reliably delivered and presented to consumers as authentic and safe to open. The CertifiedEmail service is available to reputable, responsible organizations for a small per-message fee.” Charging a fee for the guaranteed delivery of legitimate mail seems like a good way to start taking a real bite out of the spam problem, but not everyone agrees.

Goodmail’s program “is the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it,” Joan Blades, co-founder of the left-leaning MoveOn.org told the Florez committee.

Those who are frustrated with loads of unwanted mail might think Blades’ comments are supportive of change, but her group and others — like the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) — are worried about creating a two-tiered Internet and what they call an “e-mail tax.”

Broken System

In a February 28, 2006, open letter to AOL, the UFW said that Goodmail’s spam solution “is a threat to the free and open Internet” that “would create a two-tiered Internet in which affluent mass e-mailers could pay AOL a fee that amounts to an “e-mail tax” for every e-mail sent.” The letter is signed by groups like Common Cause, which typically don’t rise up to fight taxes, so one might wonder what’s really going on. The answer is two-fold.

First, some people want everything to be free even if it means the entire system is broken for everyone. Second, it is difficult for some people to accept change even if it moves the environment in a better direction. It is clear that the current system is broken.

One need look no farther than one’s inbox to figure that out, but in addition, AOL estimates that 80 percent of all e-mail is blocked. That’s a big chunk of mail consuming a good deal of ISP resources — and consumers are harmed when they still have to deal with the junk mail and scams that aren’t blocked.

Those who think that the current e-mail system is “free” need to consider the value of time spent dealing with spam and phishing scams. It is indeed free for spammers to send mail, yet it is the innocent recipients who pay the price. Where’s the common cause in that?

Shifting the Burden

In a move showing the California government’s desire to get involved in high-tech business decisions, Senator Florez asked AOL to delay implementation of the Goodmail system until his committee finishes analyzing testimony. AOL isn’t complying — a good thing for its customers, who will see a new spam solution sooner rather than later.

Governments have already attempted to address the spam issue at both the state and federal levels. Their efforts haven’t fixed the problem, and something else is needed. AOL and Goodmail are working toward adding a dose of economic rationality to e-mail communications in order to shift the burden so that unsuspecting consumers aren’t forced to pay for others who have big mouths or nasty intentions.

Legislators should stay out of the way and let private industry find the right solution to the spam problem.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute and author of “Canning Spam: An Economic Solution to Unwanted E-mail.”

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