AOL Offer Fails to Halt Nonprofits' Goodmail Protest

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Nonprofit and advocacy groups are not backing off from AOL after the company offered them free third-party e-mail accreditation services in an effort to curb their protests against AOL's use of Goodmail CertifiedEmail.


"The biggest problem all along with pay-to-send isn't that nonprofits will have to pay. The problem is the perverse incentives of AOL getting paid to deliver some categories of e-mail," said Danny O'Brien, activism coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, San Francisco. The foundation, along with MoveOn.org and other groups, is organizing the protest against what they call AOL's "e-mail tax."


Since 50 organizations signed on to protest the fee-based e-mail accreditation system via an open letter to AOL at DearAOL.com in late February, more than 450 groups have joined in. Another 30,000 individuals also have signed the petition criticizing AOL's use of Goodmail.


Gilles Frydman, founder of the Association of Online Cancer Resources, said AOL's offer to pay for other third-party e-mail accreditation services -- but not Goodmail -- does not address the problem. AOL is still creating a two-tiered e-mail system: one group of e-mail senders who can afford to pay to get e-mails with images and links delivered consistently, and another group of those who cannot pay for the service, the DearAOL letter states.


"The only way they can help is [to] develop open standards that everyone can work on instead of trying to develop their own technology that has never been tested," Frydman said.


AOL is simply trying to make money off commercial e-mailers, Frydman said.


"If it is not designed to generate money, let's give this whole thing for free to the entire Internet," he said.


AOL said it will identify "one or more" third-party accreditation services that nonprofits can use for free and will release more details in the next month or two.


AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said nonprofits have reacted positively to its offer.


"That announcement, by the way, has generated a huge amount of support and goodwill from not-for-profits who have contacted us, and those we've reached out to," he said. "We look forward to assisting them, as always, as we move forward on two fronts: to implement our not-for-profit e-mail plan, and to implement CertifiedEmail on behalf of our members' safety and security."


Meanwhile, most businesses will be unaffected by AOL's implementation of CertifiedEmail, according to a new report from technology research and consulting firm Gartner Group, Stamford, CT.


"Goodmail simply extends 'whitelist' services that AOL already offers. However, Goodmail, unlike EWL [Enhanced White List], also gives senders delivery confirmation," three Gartner analysts wrote in their analysis of the service.


E-mail senders should expect to pay extra for this service, "as they would for enhanced postal mail delivery," the analysts wrote. "AOL is only the first of many providers planning to offer upgraded services at additional cost." VeriSign, Entrust and GeoTrust also are considering issuing fee-based "high-assurance" certificates to Web sites that want to prove they are trustworthy, the analysts wrote.


But CertifiedEmail will not necessarily prevent phishing, as AOL and Goodmail are touting, Gartner Group said.


"The Goodmail trust mark is probably too new to be a valuable anti-phishing mechanism for consumers at this time," the analysts wrote.


Still, e-mailers should not ignore this issue and wait for proposed e-mail authentication standards, including Sender ID, Sender Policy Framework and DomainKeys, to prevent phishing.


"Widespread adoption of such standards is unlikely to occur before the end of 2008," the analysts wrote.


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