Why pay-to-spam does not violate network neutrality

Posted by andyo on Feb 28, 2006 9:46 AM EDT
LXer.com; By Andy Oram
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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.

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A lot of Net users are grumbling about the recent new policy announced by 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 relationship.)

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
network neutrality, which has been the subject of Senate hearings and heated debates among telephone companies, Internet portals, consumer groups, and free speech advocates.

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 as spam.

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.

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