MoveOn is on the Wrong Side of the AOL Email Issue

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I recently received a mass email communication from MoveOn.org, a political action group whose newsletter I receive. The email begins as follows:

“AOL recently announced what amounts to an ‘email tax.’ Under this pay-to-send system, large emailers willing to pay an ‘email tax’ can bypass spam filters and get guaranteed access to people’s inboxes – with their messages having a preferential high-priority designation.

Charities, small businesses, civic organizing groups, and even families with mailing lists will inevitably be left with inferior Internet service unless they are willing to pay the ‘email tax’ to AOL. We need to stop AOL immediately so other email hosts know that following AOL’s lead would be a mistake.”

As a technologist and heavy email user, I believe that we do need to look at creative ways to stop spammers. Democracy is predicated upon two components: having the ability to speak AND the environment to be heard. Today, the ‘noise’ caused by spammers is bordering on unbearable. Moreover, the cost of quelling that noise is ultimately absorbed by the end-user as they implement paid spam-blocking solutions.

Imagine for a moment a world in which anyone were able to print and distribute traditional postal mail (i.e., “snail mail”) without ANY charges – no printing or postage – nothing. Not only would consumers be unable to sift through the avalanche of mail they’d receive, the US Postal Service would come to a screeching halt. Charging mass mailers a fee just makes sense. And a good implementation of the scheme will be extremely valuable to both mass mailers like MoveOn as well as corporate and consumer email users.

I’m not suggesting that this move by Yahoo and AOL is the right decision. It’s just that the response is unwarranted. If AOL implements this system and it negatively affects its customers (e.g., unwarranted delays receiving legitimate emails), then their customers will flee. This was the case when Yahoo/Netscape introduced the world to the “unwalled garden” and Google began offering “democratic” search results.

The market always rules.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do believe that this paradigm shift could be nominally beneficial to a company in Magnolia’s portfolio, Genutec Business Solutions. That being said, I am doubtful that the effect will be anything more than nominal for the marketing communications sector in general.

The right response for MoveOn would be to (1) research the options and (2) encourage its user base to SWITCH email providers to those that have the most robust and cost-effective spam blocking systems. AOL may or may not be successful in its implementation of this new pay-per-email scheme. Regardless, a number of providers will fill the void and deliver an enhanced solution.