Backlash to sender-pays email incentives

Not too surprisingly, as soon as AOL and Yahoo! announced the were implementing an (optional) sender-pays email system, there was a huge uproar. So it has ever been since the Internet grew into a public net (out of its early days as a research and military net): anything vaguely smacking of converting real, user-suffered costs into monetary form is reviled as “the end of the Internet as we know it”. In this case, the end of the spam-encrusted, diminishing-reliability, low-rent Internet as we know it.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is run by smart people with widespread support, and they’ve done a lot of good for the Internet over the years, so their rant on this is worth reading.
Now the EFF is organzinging a coalition of non-profits to challenge AOL. (See EFFector vol. 19, no. 9, 3 March 2006 — not online yet but it will be here soon.)

“Over fifty groups with nearly 15 million members joined with us, including Free Press, the U.S. Humane Society, the Gun Owners of America,,, the AFL-CIO, and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.”

My first reaction is: That’s right, AOL doesn’t “own” user inboxes, it merely provides a commercial service to maintain them. And so, if users don’t like AOL’s attempt to provide more reliable, low-spam email service, they can switch to another provider. There’s a pretty active market for email services: why assume this market is broken? Indeed, there are some pretty smart people at EFF, and they understand this:

“One might trust that the market will eventually sort this out: rewarding ISPs that do not sell access to their users’ inboxes and that work to improve deliverability for everyone, not just senders who pay. But the market speaks slowly — in the meantime, this system will push small speakers into a choice of paying or not being sure that their messages are getting through to their members.”

I don’t know if this particular sender-pays mechanism is going to work well, but I think we should be encouraging experiments, and that this is one of the most promising in a while. We know filtering will never provide a complete solution. Why not try an incentive-based solution?
In case you don’t know the details, the AOL and Yahoo! systems do not require any senders to pay, though it’s hard to tell that from the backlash. Rather, it allows senders to pay (one-quarter of a penny per email) to obtain a higher “class” of service (like the difference between first class and bulk class snail mail), which will not be pre-filtered by the email service provider (ESP). Yes, eventually that price could increase (my guess is it has to increase if it is actually going to discourage many spammers!), and yes, eventually AOL and Yahoo! could reduce the quality of the lower service class (say, by filtering it more aggressively so more “good” mail is siphoned off to spam folders). But over that same time frame users can switch to other ESPs if they don’t like the service.
There is a bit of disingenuousness in the non-profit organization protests. They want to “speak” at low cost: that is, they want to send spam! They are concerned that they won’t be able to afford first-class service for the millions of emails they send out. For example, conservative political organizer sends out 2 to 3 million email messages a week, and joined the EFF coalition because they are worried “we might not be able to afford sending them” (link). (In fairness, many of these organizations may be sending only opt-in, non-spam bulk email, but if the value of the mails they send is less than a quarter-penny each, is there a great social loss if they send fewer?)


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