AOL charged with blocking opponents' e-mail

Company accused of bouncing messages opposed to its adoption of a program requiring marketers to pay.

America Online on Wednesday apparently began blocking e-mail on its servers containing the Web address of a petition against the company's upcoming certified-mail program, an issue the company called a "glitch."

The Internet service provider, which has roughly 20 million subscribers in the United States, began bouncing e-mail communications with the URL "Dearaol.com" sometime late Wednesday and continuing through Thursday.

A e-mail sent by CNET News.com to an AOL.com address and containing the URL "www.dearaol.com" bounced back on Thursday afternoon with a system administrator note that read: "The e-mail system was unable to deliver the message, but did not report a specific reason."

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said late Thursday that AOL e-mails mentioning Dearaol.com would now be delivered as normal. The issue, he said, arose late Wednesday because of a software glitch that "affected dozens of Web links in messages," including the Dearaol.com.

"We discovered the issue early this morning, and our postmaster and mail operations team started working to identify this software glitch," he said.

Dearaol.com is a coalition of companies and individuals against AOL's adoption of GoodMail's CertifiedEmail, an antispam program that requires marketers to pay to ensure delivery of their e-mail messages and circumvent spam filters. The Web site contains an open letter and a petition that calls on people to protest what it calls an "e-mail tax" that would inhibit the Internet's inherent free flow of information and create a two-tiered system.

The e-mail tax, which could amount to a penny per e-mail sent, would essentially line AOL's pockets for ensuring delivery for affluent mass mailers, while leaving others with unreliable service in ineffective spam-filtering systems, according to the site. Nearly 600 organizations and 350,000 individuals have signed the petition so far.

Despite its quick fix, the hiccup adds fuel to a long-running controversy around GoodMail's certified-mail program and various ISPs adoption of it. Earlier this year, AOL and Yahoo said they would implement the e-mail postage program because with the rise of phishing scams and spam , they needed a way to tell legitimate marketing messages, like those advertising a sale at Jcrew.com, from junk. But their endorsement of GoodMail's system immediately spurred outcry from groups like MoveOn.org, the AFL-CIO, Gun Owners of America and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which formed the coalition Dearaol.com.

In March, AOL extended a peace offering by announcing a plan to pick up the costs for nonprofit groups that wish to send e-mails to AOL members.

AOL was expected to adopt the GoodMail system last week, but that move was delayed for unknown reasons, according to MoveOn co-founder Wes Boyd, whose group and the Electronic Frontier Foundation started the petition.

"AOL is essentially scanning e-mail for anything that's opposing their policy," Boyd said in a phone interview.

The group says it also believes the alleged blocking cements the view that an e-mail tax will harm free speech on the Internet.

"The fact is, ISPs like AOL commonly make these kinds of arbitrary decisions--silently banning huge swathes of legitimate mail on the flimsiest of reasons--every day, and no one hears about it," said Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "AOL's planned CertifiedEmail system would let them profit from this power by offering to charge legitimate mailers to bypass these malfunctioning filters."

Graham said that AOL has yet to implement the GoodMail system, but plans to do so imminently. When it does adopt the certified mail program, AOL will continue to operate its white lists, or lists of accepted e-mail senders, he said. In addition, the company plans to start a registration system for nonprofits and other groups wishing to send e-mail to subscribers so that they would avoid spam filters.

 

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