Nonprofits and political organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are campaigning against America Online's plan to give preferential treatment to some E-mail newsletters and other bulk mail, provided that the senders are willing to pay a fee.
Bennet Haselton, of the political group Peacefire.org, posted an explanation on Slashdot. It's thoughtful--but demonstrates why Peacefire and the EFF are missing the point about the pay-for-E-mail scheme.AOL and Yahoo said in February that they plan to launch a certified mail service. Senders of bulk mail would pay a fee; the senders would be investigated and, if they were proven to be nonspammers, their e-mail would be certified. Certified messages would bypass the AOL and Yahoo spam filters and be displayed with a special icon in users' inboxes.
The plan came under fire from Peacefire, the EFF, and other political organizations, which said it would effectively set up a two-tier system for E-mail. Big companies would be able to pay to get their bulk messages through, while small companies and small not-for-profits would eventually get their messages blocked.
Haselton said in his Slashdot post that the plan is an example of a bad idea that the free market won't kill--because users won't even know that E-mail has been blocked. He notes that a similar program, called Bonded Sender, was implemented by Hotmail and writes:
[O]ne thing we all agreed on was that Bonded Sender sucks. But has the marketplace punished Hotmail for using it? Have people left in droves because non-Bonded-Sender e-mail gets blocked? No, because if they never see it getting blocked they don't know what happens. Free markets only solve problems that are actually visible to the user.
And this is why groups like EFF and Peacefire are rallying against pay-per-mail. We don't protest bad ideas. We protest bad ideas that could cause harm because by their nature, the marketplace will not kill them. Think about it: if AOL announced that they were going to start charging $100/month for dial-up, would we care? Would MoveOn send out e-mail warnings to its AOL subscribers? Would the EFF start a coalition against it? No, because users will abandon AOL over something like that, and the marketplace will kill it. But people don't abandon their provider over wrongly blocked e-mail if they don't even know it's happening. And thus pay-per-mail could become a de facto standard because it's invisible to customers.
That's the crux of the problem with Haselton's argument right there--he's assuming that people are staying with Hotmail because they're too ignorant to switch. In fact, what's really going on is that Hotmail's customers have made a rational--though probably unconscious--choice. They've decided that the benefits of Hotmail outweigh the drawback of having difficulty receiving newsletters through Hotmail.
Haselton thinks the ability to receive newsletters is an important feature of Hotmail. Hotmail's own users disagree. We know they disagree because they're staying with Hotmail.
Organizations that have difficulty getting their message out through newsletters have alternatives. They can use newsgroups, RSS feeds, set up a blog, do a podcast or a videoblog, or any or all of the above. If all those channels prove inadequate to get the message out, then maybe the problem is just that nobody's interested in hearing the message.