AOL and Yahoo are working with Goodmail, a Silicon Valley company, which plans to charge between a quarter-cent and a cent for each message. The two Internet companies will get the bulk of the fees that Goodmail collects.
Richard Gingras, chief executive of Goodmail, said the company planned to offer unspecified discounts to nonprofit senders of e-mail. AOL will start using the Goodmail system within a month. Yahoo will begin testing the service several months later and will charge fees only to deliver messages related to purchases or financial transactions.
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The campaign is being organized by MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group that uses its list of three million e-mail addresses to influence public opinion and raise money, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties group. They have enlisted about 50 other supporters including the Gun Owners of America, the Democratic National Committee and the National Humane Society.
The groups have set up a Web site that will have an online petition users can sign asking AOL to change its policy.
The fee will be a disadvantage to "charities, small businesses and even families with mailing lists that will have no guarantee their e-mail will be delivered," said Adam Green, a spokesman for MoveOn.org Civic Action, the group's nonpolitical arm. "The magic of the Internet is that it is free and open to everybody so small ideas can become big ideas."
Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for AOL, said the company would continue to deliver mail from political and charitable groups as it has in the past, using technology and people to sort legitimate mail from unwanted junk mail.
Messages from senders in the paid Goodmail program will be highlighted as "AOL Certified" and will display images and links to Web sites automatically. Messages from most other senders, who do not pay the fee, are delivered in such a way that the recipient cannot immediately see the images or click on the links. Users will always receive messages from senders listed in their address books.
Gilles Frydman, the president of the Association of Cancer Online Resources, a group that sends 1.5 million e-mail messages a month to cancer patients, said he was joining the protest because he did not believe that AOL and Yahoo would continue to deliver his group's messages without requiring payment.
"Have you ever seen a company that offers two services, one free and the other paid, provide as good a service to the free one?" he asked. "It is guaranteed that the quality of service for those who do not pay will go down."
Graham said AOL had no incentive to degrade the regular e-mail service it provided to users. In any case, he said, the company stands to earn only about "as much of a revenue stream as setting up a lemonade stand on the corner" from the Goodmail fees.
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