AOL Is Selling Access To Your Inbox

I have been an investor in a company called Return Path for almost six years.  Return Path is in a number of email related businesses, but one that they basically invented is the email delivery assurance business.  They work for commercial emailers and help them get permissioned email delivered to inboxes.  They work with the commercial senders on changing their practices so that their email will get a reputation as a "good mail" and will get through to the inboxes of the people who have requested the mail.

Well today AOL announced that it is taking a very different approach.
Last year AOL partnered with a competitor of Return Path’s called Goodmail
that thinks money is the answer to spam.  They believe that if you
force commercial mailers to pay to get into inboxes, the spammers will
be put out of business.  Nice theory, but in practice it smells like
bribing your way into inboxes.

Both approaches are EZ Pass for email.  But Return Path’s approach has always been to get the senders to send email the way consumers want it.  Permissioned, relevant, not too often, and stopped when the consumer says "no more".

AOL’s approach is to turn email delivery into a pay for access business.  Those who can afford to pay get through. So if you use AOL for mail, look forward to lots of high value email like mortgage offers, life insurance offers, etc.

But what if you are an AOL user and you get your weekly horoscope from a great
service that also has marketing messages in it?  If that
service doesn’t pay, your horoscope is going to go into the junk mail folder.  And you’ll wonder where it went.  What if you get your bank statements via email and your bank refuses to pay to get delivery?  Who will pay the late fees when you don’t get your statements?

Until today, Goodmail was only an option not a requirement because AOL also had something called "enhanced whitelist" which allowed commercial mailers with excellent reputations to get through the filters.  But I guess that wasn’t making them any money.  So today, AOL announced that they are "phasing out" their enhanced whitelist program and forcing commercial mailers to use Goodmail if they want their mail to get through to inboxes.  They spun that news as a good thing as this piece from ClickZ shows.

But what is really going on here is that AOL is saying that it doesn’t matter if you have a great reputation and have been whitelisted at AOL for years.  Now if you want to get commercial mail into their customers inboxes you must pay for delivery.

And so it’s a sad day for email.  The spammers have won.  They have turned email delivery into a business that can be bought and sold for the highest price.  And AOL is leading the way.  Of course.