Internet Pickpackets

Thursday, February 23, 2006

How would you like to pay per email you send? Or have your email program give preferential service to those emails that were paid for, putting them at the top of your email inbox, perhaps delaying other emails that were sent free and clear? You know, for now, until free email is something that we tell our kids about like 8-track tapes and CDs. Well, it's on the way. Yahoo! and AOL are both implementing a scheme that drops the proverbial shoe, under the auspicies of spam prevention. Essentially, they'd charge a cent per email to big companies on an initially voluntary basis. The claim is that it would help them sort spam by only allowing companies that follow guidelines about only sending to those requesting the emails and having unsubscribe links (nevermind that most unsubscribe links unsubscribe you and then add you to other more profitable lists since you've essentially confirmed that you are checking that email account). In this way, they purport to be able to kill spam.

Sounds okay, doesn't it? Big companies isn't you or I, and it's only a cent. Well, first of all, let's look at how it works right now - forget about the future. If you're a legitimate company sending out millions of emails a month, whether it's bank statements or updates that your site visitors have requested, that amounts to thousands of dollars. To give you the same service you have now, except, and this is important, with guaranteed access to the inbox without going through any spam filtering. Essentially, you're being blackmailed to either pay or be filtered. Now let's say you're a spammer. You have no friends, live alone in mustard-stained pyjamas, sending emails about a product you'll never use: viagra. Not that they can get it up, necessarily, just that sex isn't something they're likely to be getting much of. If you're a spammer and I've offended you, good! I'm offended daily, and so are many millions of others. That's why this scheme of Yahoo/AOL's is so brilliant. It plays on that hatred of spam to allow them to get their foot in the door. Because, really, what are we doing here? We're saying to spammers that they can continue as they were, some spam getting past the filter and other stuff not, by continuing to send free email. OR, they can now pay a cent and get guaranteed access to your inbox, past the filters. That service is easily worth the cent to spammers and while Yahoo & AOL say that people would have to follow guidelines, there have been laws for a long time stating the same thing and they, too, have been circumvented. Consider. A cleverly worded spam delivered straight into the inbox, past filters, and 'guaranteed' is bound to be read. Response rate will rise dramatically, say that only one person in 100 responds to a given spam message. But that means that for $1 advertising, you've gained at least one customer. Admittedly, I don't foresee response rates that high, but even a tenth of that and you gain. Which is the conclusion Yahoo and AOL will use to justify their increases over time. But let's leave that future stuff for later on.

With the current system, who benefits? The end user, you, potentially gets just as much spam, not to mention that now someone can pay to place themselves in your inbox. Spammers have a guaranteed way to get past spam filtering or can continue writing spam to get past existing filters for free. If, as they claim, Yahoo & AOL are planning to keep email free for individuals, then that means that the filters will still have to be there and all non-paid emails can't be blocked, so spam can get in the same as it does today. So a blessing for spammers. And of course, a blessing for Yahoo & AOL, who stand to make money of spammers and honest corporate citizens alike. Of course, legitimate corporate clients are the losers in this, essentially being charged for being the good guys rather than trying to stop the bad guys. It's like trying to stop graffiti by taking a toll from everyone who own a painting company. Well, maybe not really like that. But certainly punishing the wrong group.

Even so, all this amounts to little more than a bad idea for the moment, but it will get worse. First of all, since it supposedly is a voluntary pay structure, you have to entice companies to go this route. Guaranteed delivery isn't enough when, in order for their filters to not have false positives, they should continue to get through free anyway. Unless of course, they blackmail companies into a pay-or-else scheme where they block non-paid (which essentially is no longer voluntary). Failing that, you're going to want something out of your return that you wouldn't get sending it for free. Which means that either:

a) Preferential service based on moving other emails down in the inbox.
b) Faster times than regular emails. Given that servers currently use best effort send-now schemes, there is no way they can send faster than that. Which means, my friend, that the only way to make this email faster is to slow other mail down.
c) Eliminate free mail so there is no standard to compare against.

Make no mistakes, soon this is the beginning of the war for the internet, which pits the group trying to maintain the philosophy of a shared/distributed network that founded the internet and built its popularity against the group that is looking for any way to grab money from users. It is a calculated and conniving move, designed to work on the average user's apathy for big companies in order to slowly introduce the concept of paid email to a currently free medium. There are other companies, telcos primarily, that are already deep into the fight, trying to get content providers and end users to pay a second time for something we're already paying for: bandwidth. Jeff Chester, president of Digital Democracy, has an article talking about what I like to call the Pickpacketing that's well worth the read.

So what to do? In the case of cable companies and telcos, you can write your MP/member of congress, but who has the time? Hopefully some people do, but supporting the companies that are fighting the good fight is a start. As for the email frauds, don't use them. Write them, and tell them you want your email account closed, or at least let them know you are against this policy and will be leaving them. Closing the account is better, because Yahoo will still make money off emails going to your inbox that you don't see, presumably. Just make sure you tell the three people emailing you at that address that AREN'T spam to switch to your new address. Which could be at many other sites, I recommend Google of course, but even Hotmail is better than supporting Yahoo/AOL. And for the love of hickory, if you're using AOL as a service provider, get the heck off! Why people still use that crummy service is beyond me. Whatever case, stand up, do something to make a difference. Once we go down this road, there will be no going back, and nothing will happen if nothing DOES happen to oppose it. Good luck!

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