Is AOL Grabbing for Money or Solving Spam Problem?

E-mail service providers went ballistic over last week’s announcement that AOL will phase out its Enhanced Whitelist in favor of Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail program. First, some background: AOL, which fends off billions of spam messages every day, blocks graphics and links on most bulk e-mail unless the sender is on AOL’s whitelist, thus allowing commercial mailers with good reputations to get through the filters.

But AOL said it will eliminate the program June 30, and senders wanting messages with links and images to get through would need to pay a fraction of a penny per e-mail to add on Goodmail’s Certified-Email. Wait, there’s more: Yahoo is testing Goodmail’s system, too, but details haven’t been released yet.

Immediately after the news, comments from ESPs started hitting the fan: L-Soft said the move “threatens to shake the foundations of Internet communications.” Lyris Technologies’ Rob Wilson called the fee astronomical and said marketers would just revert to text-only messages to AOL accounts. Return Path’s Matt Blumberg said spammers won’t pay for the service so AOL will be charging marketers who aren’t the problem.

A few people took an opposing view. JupiterResearch’s David Daniels wrote on his blog that AOL’s decision is a positive step for many reasons, including because it “removes any perception of a conflict of interest for the ISPs as it totally removes them from the certification process. … Adding an additional cost to e-mail delivery will drive the industry as a whole to adopt better mailing practices.” Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras told us that adding a cost is necessary to ensure legitimate e-mail delivery. “Economics is an excellent method of establishing the good faith of the sender, an excellent method of motivating proper sending behavior,” he said, adding that it costs $8 to $12 per year per mailbox to keep inboxes clean.

Still, with several e-mail addresses for each of the 19.5 million AOL subscribers in the United States, someone stands to make an awful lot of money from this. There’s lots of talk out there, including the rumor that AOL may quietly back out of its decision. For that, however, we’ll have to wait and see. People have said for years that one way to end spam is to charge senders a small fee for every message delivered. Remember that urban legend about Congress passing a bill so the U.S. Postal Service could charge 5 cents for every e-mail sent? Now that would be something to really talk about.

Tad Clarke is editor in chief of DM News. His editorial appears Mondays on and in our e-mail newsletter. You can subscribe to our e-mail newsletters by visiting

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