The AOL email tax: Is the sky falling?

Remember the famous internet rumor that made the rounds in 2006: “AOL is trying to tax your email, write in now!

Was it a rumor? Let’s take a look how things have shaped up, since that hit the internet.

One year ago, Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation “blogged a piece” about this. How AOL and Yahoo were going to use the Goodmail system to allow senders to choose to certify some inbound email. How it was going to create a “pay to speak” environment and this is the first step toward killing the “basically free” landscape of email. A site called DearAOL was created, decrying Goodmail as a threat to a free and open internet. And if you believe the opinions of those behind the site, like MoveOn and the EFF, and others, they mean that -- literally!

One year later, let's take a look at the facts:
  • The Dear AOL site seems to have vanished (as of February 7, 2007). Poof goes the astroturf.
  • You can still deliver mail to AOL just fine, “basically free,” as EFF put it, without signing up for Goodmail.
  • Those that choose to utilize Goodmail and find themselves successful with it can see significant increases in clicks, for example. (Meaning, if it matters to you, and you want to sign, users probably trust your mail and read it first.)
Amazingly, EFF implied then that Goodmail means you’re going to get more spam. The implication is that bad guys will be able to pay, and AOL and Yahoo will want to give you this new, bad mail “served alongside your ordinary spam.”

Fast forward to a year later -- today. Again, the facts:
  • Goodmail has stringent guidelines you have to comply with to enter the program, and to stay in the program. Generating too many spam complaints? You don't get accepted into the program. Generate too many complaints while in the program? You get kicked out. (These are typical "are you spamming" measures used by ISPs, and not new.)
  • AOL is all about user experience. The whole point of AOL's massive spam blocking effort is to get you to be happier with them than you'd be with Gmail or Lycos or somebody else. They were the first large ISP to offer a "report spam" button, which they use as the guiding data behind every spam filtering decision they make. That's called listening directly to their users. Do you really think they're about to screw that up by serving you up some sort of weird paid spam after doing all that?
  • The DearAOL site talked about how the signatories there "have always been happy working together with you to fight spam and phishing." Well, so is AOL. AOL was then, and AOL is today. For years (since at least 2003), AOL’s had this useful site called “Postmaster.Info,” specifically geared toward helping senders address issues sending mail to AOL users.
I’m not here to sell you on Goodmail. I have no vested interest regarding whether or not you use it or don’t use it. I think it might work well for some people, and less well for others. That’s not the point.

The point is this: Go over to your window. Look out. Look up. See the sky? It’s still there. It hasn't fallen, regardless of what the EFF wanted you to think.

I guess it was just a rumor after all.