AOL Is Selling Access To Your Inbox (continued)

Last Monday I posted about AOL’s announcement that it was phasing out its "enhanced whitelist" service in favor of a "paid stamps" program with Goodmail.

Almost a week later, that story has made it to the top of techmemeorandum, largely due to Saul Hansell’s story in the New York Times about this issue.

In the week since I posted about this issue, AOL has clarified the situation and said it will not phase out its enhanced whitelist service.  That’s great news.

I have a vested interest in this issue by virtue of Flatiron’s investment in Return Path, where I am on the Board.  So you should take everything I have to say on this issue in that vein.  You may also want to see what Matt Blumberg has been saying about this issue on the Return Path blog.

I am pleased that this issue is getting aired in the media and the blogs.  It needs to be discussed.  Some people feel that by forcing commerical mailers to pay, you can sort the wheat from the chaff and spammers will not be able to afford to send mail anymore.

This is a complex issue. It involves commercial mailers, ISPs and webmail hosts, and the customers they serve.  If this was just about commercial mailers compensating ISPs and webmail hosts for the mail they send, then "paid stamps" might make sense.

But we have to think about the consumer in this  discussion.  Consumers want email and when they subscribe to an email list, ask for a verification email for a purchase, ask to be notified when something goes on sale, etc, they want to get that email.  When their ISP forces the merchant to pay for delivery, some merchants are going to say no, others are going to cut back on what they send, and others are going to stop offering email services if they can’t justify the cost of providing them.

Until now, mail on the Internet has been free.  That’s allowed a tremendous number of email delivered servies to flourish.  Unfortunately it has also allowed spam to flourish.  As a longtime investor in email companies like Yoyodyne, Bigfoot, and Return Path, I’ve been around these issues for a long time.

And I don’t believe that money is the answer to solving the spam problem.  I think we are on the right track already with sender authentication, emerging reputation services like Return Path’s Bonded Sender and Sender Score and those from other companies in the market, and with more intelligent spam filters and whitelisting solutions.

If AOL and others want to offer a paid stamps program as a compliment to these other approaches, that is fine with me.  But mandating paid stamps as the only solution, which is what was announced last week and now seems like an miscommunication, is a bad idea.  I am glad everyone is coming to that conclusion.