A new policy announced by America Online and Yahoo! will let email senders pay extra to bypass mail filters. This should not be compared to the much more serious issue of network neutrality, as critics charge.
A lot of Net users are grumbling about the recent new policy announced
America Online and Yahoo!
that will let email senders pay extra to bypass the mail filters put
up by those hosting services. Certainly, the companies bypassing the
filters are those who want to send out commercial email, so it's a
kind of pay-to-spam policy. (But it's still legitimate email, I
believe--email to people with whom they have set up a prior
Now some companies are complaining officially about
the AOL and Yahoo! policy. These companies are complaining that it
sets up a two-tier Internet, and are invoking the spirit of
which has been the subject of Senate hearings and heated debates among
telephone companies, Internet portals, consumer groups, and free
I think rhetoric is getting way out in front of reality here, and the
complaints are not helping any debate. I think the AOL/Yahoo! policy
is a poor but understandable one. And it bears no relation to the much
more serious issue of network neutrality.
(The most recent rumors from Washington, by the way, are that Congress
has removed the network neutrality language from its legislation, and
therefore that telephone companies will get to do what they want with
the Internet. Well, I still enjoyed those Senate hearings. Maybe as
taxpayer I'll be able to pay someday for Senate hearings that
accomplish something as well.)
The AOL/Yahoo! email policy addresses a common problem. Lots of
companies send out emails promotions to customers and other people who
have explicitly requested these emails. These email are legitimate and
should be delivered, but spam filters can't tell the difference
between them and unsolicited, scatter-shot, millions-at-a-time emails.
There are flaws with the creation of lists for legitimate promotions,
I admit. Some people sign up for email without meaning to because it's
done on an "opt out" basis; this is objectionable, but the recipients
can be educated about how to opt out. Other recipients are compelled
to sign up even though they don't want the email, because they want
another service offered by the company; they can deal with the emails
by filtering them out in their own email readers. Legitimate
commercial promotions can be annoying, but they should not be treated
So AOL and Yahoo! will let companies pay to bypass the filters. The
first time some company succeeds in abusing the policy and sending out
real, unsolicited spam, the whole system will be discredited and come
crashing down. I don't expect to see it in place a year from now. But
I'm not going to fight it, either; it's just one of those experiments
that companies have to try in the desperate fight to keep Internet
channels open for legitimate traffic.
The policy should not be compared to that proposed by telephone
companies for many reasons:
The email policy merely tweaks an existing system. Spam filtering has
been used for years, and white-listing is an established way to deal
with the imperfections of filtering.
Spam filtering can block some legitimate traffic, but it does not
discriminate against (or preclude the deployment of) entire forms of
traffic, as the telephone company policy does.
The email policy does not distort the architecture of the Internet or
engage in wasteful and suspicious traffic shaping, as the telephone
company policy does.
There is much more competition in email hosting than in Internet
service providers. It's easier to complain to AOL or Yahoo! (and to
quit their service if the policies become obnoxious) than to confront
the telephone companies that now control most DSL access.
The one red flag I see raised by the email policy is that it provides
a new, very lucrative source of revenue, and therefore could tempt
email hosting services to look for other ways to soak email senders
and recipients. But I trust somehow that it won't lead to such abuses.
Free email has been a hallmark of network access since people first
hooked up modems to telephone handsets. This is not an easy habit to
buck. And while email is still a critical technology for now, I'm
convinced the future lies with other protocols and services. You just
can't do much more to muck up email than the spammers have done
already. Let's all work together to keep email flowing.