Silencing the e-mail opposition

AOL plans to implement a charge system for “legitimate” mass e-mailers.

Everyone hates e-mail spam. It fills inboxes with hundreds or thousands of unwanted messages, often advertising lewd products and random medications. Internet service provider America Online decided the best way to cut down on spam was to charge companies to send mass e-mails. This so-called “e-mail tax” has spurred an outcry among companies that formed a group called Dearaol.com.

The site contains a petition countering the new e-mail system, called GoodMail. Suspiciously, e-mails from that Web address began to bounce back for no specific reason. While AOL claimed the bounced mail was caused by a software glitch affecting dozens of Web links in e-mails, it seems fishy that a site directly countering AOL’s new e-mail plan would be randomly included.

While AOL’s plan seems reasonable on the outside, it likely would affect the thousands of nonprofit organizations that use e-mail to communicate with their supporters, as well as filter out legitimate e-mails from individuals. This is a common problem with spam filters and likely would not be fixed by making big companies pay to send their messages. Many people choose not to use a spam filter at all just to make sure they get all their messages.

AOL’s solution to this argument is to create a list of nonprofits that would not have to pay the e-mail tax. But if a so-called software glitch can affect millions of e-mails for no apparent reason, what is to say such a list would even be effective?

Unfortunately, what AOL is planning boils down to censorship. While spam is annoying for everyone, the problem is the illegitimate spammers, and charging legitimate mass e-mailers advertising a sale at a catalog Web site or promoting the World Wildlife Fund, is not the solution. AOL simply is trying to profit from its new censorship power, and this is a completely backward way of fixing the spam problem.

A real solution would be pushing for legislation against spammers and those who send spyware and viruses instead of punishing those who are using e-mail for its legitimate purpose: free flow of information to the public.