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Why taxing e-mail senders is a bad idea

Habeas CEO Des Cahill says penalizing senders will not help them improve their e-mail practices.

Earlier this month, America Online announced the upcoming launch of a pay per e-mail service from a company called Goodmail.

Simultaneously, AOL announced that it would phase out its Enhanced Whitelist, a service enabling responsible senders of commercial e-mail to get their messages reliably delivered to AOL users.

Although AOL has subsequently reversed course on the Enhanced Whitelist, the news sparked an outcry in the industry and mainstream media as the message to commercial senders was: If you want to get your e-mails delivered to your AOL customers, you have to pay a tax to Goodmail. More importantly, it raised serious questions about the future of consumers' control over their e-mail in-box.

Putting a hefty tax on e-mail senders is diametrically opposed to Internet culture and U.S. values regarding freedom of communications. Consumers expect that when they give a vendor permission to send them an e-mail, it will be delivered promptly and without molestation by their e-mail service provider. Are those expectations deteriorating in light of the Goodmail announcement? The short answer is yes.

The good guys should get their e-mail delivered. The bad guys shouldn't.

If a consumer requests to receive e-mails from a vendor who does not (or cannot) pay for Goodmail services, those e-mails may no longer be delivered or may be delivered in an altered state that renders the e-mail illegible. Suddenly, consumers who requested e-mail and are paying for the e-mail service are relinquishing control of their in-box to a private entity.

So why exactly does Goodmail get to decide what does and does not get in my in-box? If I want my rate alerts from E-Loan and the company doesn't pay Goodmail--do I continue to get these e-mails? If I do, will I be able to read them without their images being altered? Some commercial senders who pay Goodmail will have little trust icons in the AOL user interface. Does that mean all the other e-mail in the AOL in-box is not trustworthy? If signs up for Goodmail and therefore has to pay a bunch of money, does that mean I'll be paying more for that DVD I'm planning to order?

The commercial e-mail space has had its share of obstacles in recent years, but through Can-Spam legislation, best practices and industry authentication standards, legitimate senders have made significant strides in learning how to effectively communicate with their customers via e-mail. The impact of spam has been mitigated as consumers have learned to manage the diminishing amounts of junk mail appearing in their in-box.

The industry is trying to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. The good guys should get their e-mail delivered. The bad guys shouldn't. A good guy is a reputable company that sends e-mail to people who signed up for the e-mail and continues to want to get that e-mail.

Goodmail would argue that the marginal economic cost of an e-mail tax will drive senders to adopt better practices. That's like saying sending a juvenile delinquent to San Quentin prison will reform the child.

What commercial senders really need is help improving their overall e-mail program (list quality, permission practices, sending infrastructure, content checking, opt-out processing, delivery tracking, reputation monitoring, authentication adoption, etc.). Penalizing senders will not help them improve their practices; they'll just have less money and resources to spend on actually improving their overall e-mail program.

The good news in all of this hoopla? We all love e-mail and are passionate about its ongoing health and well-being. But the message from the industry and public reaction is loud and clear.

E-mail is a critical business communications medium, and senders must have the unfettered ability to reach their customers reliably. Consumers also have a right to expect that their e-mail providers will make best efforts to deliver e-mail from legitimate senders to their in-box, regardless of the sender's participation or nonparticipation in any particular vendor's program.