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Spam and scams prompted AOL's fee-based e-mail

Portal says customers clamor for protection from con artists, but opponents say tactic will hurt small nonprofits.

America Online says it's waging a fierce battle against Internet scam artists and is unconcerned that not everyone approves of its new approach to protecting users from phishing schemes and spam.

A plan by AOL and Yahoo to charge mass e-mailers a fee for guaranteed delivery of messages to subscribers has run into very vocal opposition from a consortium of nonprofit and public interest groups, including Civic Action, the AFL-CIO, Gun Owners of America and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The fee, scheduled to take effect in 30 days, is little more than an "e-mail tax" say opponents of the plan. Paying for e-mail will thwart the growth of grassroots organizations and divide mass e-mailers into two groups: elites who can afford to communicate with a mass audience, and those who can't and are locked out, says Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"The big nonprofits are getting the attention here, but this isn't really just for them," Cohn said. "What about the little guys that are just starting and may not be reaching an audience who wants to hear what they have to say? These are the groups that will lose."

But against a backdrop of phony aid organizations and phishing attacks, every legitimate fundraising group loses when consumers are skeptical of anyone asking for money, AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. The classic example of this came last year in the deadly wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the American Red Cross was desperately seeking donations. The Red Cross found itself competing with a legion of hucksters, he said.

Graham noted that the aid organization was one of the first to sign up for the new e-mail service.

Phishing, the term given for setting up fake Web sites in order to trick someone out of passwords and other personal information, is at an all-time high. Graham said it's time for the company to go on the offensive.

"We're very much in combat mode around here," he said. "Our users have asked us for quite a while for help in determining good e-mail from bad. We have to provide them a mechanism to do this."

The premium e-mail service, which may cost as much as a penny per e-mail, won't cost consumers anything, AOL said. The portal intends to continue to offer its free e-mail service.