AOL, Yahoo Plan to Launch Paid Certified E-Mail Service

Companies will be able to pay to bypass spam filters and get their messages delivered directly to users' in-boxes. Critics say the service is a step backward, and violates the spirit of the Internet.
America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc. on Monday said they planned to launch certified email services that would bypass spam filters and deliver messages directly to subscribers.

The service, which would be provided through Goodmail Systems, is expected to be used by retailers and other companies that may often find that their marketing messages gets treated as junk email and filtered out of customers' or subscribers' inboxes.

AOL, a Dulles, Va., unit of Time Warner Inc., plans to launch the service within 60 days. Yahoo said it would be available in the "coming months." Both companies would continue to offer their free Web mail services.

Mail certified by AOL and Yahoo would contain an icon viewable from a person's list of inbox messages. The icon would indicate that the message is from a person or company from whom the recipient has agreed to receive email. The message would arrive intact, with all links, images and attachments, which sometimes get stripped away by anti-spam or anti-phishing technology used by Web mail providers.

Yahoo declined to discuss its plans beyond a brief statement confirming that it would offer the Goodmail service. AOL, however, said the American Red Cross, The New York Times Co. and credit report company Experian have signed up for the service.

Some analysts criticized the plans, saying that other than setting up a fast-track delivery for companies and people willing to pay, it wouldn't do anything to help reduce the amount of spam or reduce phishing.

"This is a step backwards," Mark Levitt, analyst for International Data Corp., said. "They should be strengthening filters and making them work faster and better, with fewer false positives, instead of offering bypass routes for sale."

A false positive refers to legitimate email that ends up being filtered out as spam.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham disagreed, saying certified email was a service that would benefit recipients, while also giving legitimate businesses a more effective means of reaching customers.

"This is really a win, win, win for everyone involved," Graham said. He also took issue with criticism that AOL should work harder to improve its filtering technology.

"We appreciate the input, but there's no other company on the Internet that has worked as hard and has gotten better results from its anti-spam and anti-phishing efforts," Graham said.

Indeed, email filters provided by Internet service providers are largely responsible for a decline in spam, according to JupiterResearch. The number of spam messages received by the average email user is expected to decline 13 percent a year to 1,640 in 2010 from 3,253 last year.

AOL would use the money collected through the certified-email service to offset the cost of fighting spam and phishing, Graham said. The Web portal and ISP would share revenue with Mountain View, Calif.-based, Goodmail, which charges from a quarter of a penny to one penny per email.

By offering paid-delivery services, however, the portals were taking the Web on an elitist road, where those who can pay the most get the best service.

"Setting up a preferred class of service does go against Internet equality, where all data on the Internet is equal," David Freund, analyst for Illuminata Inc., said.

Small companies, for example, may find themselves at a disadvantage, because of the additional costs to ensure that email gets delivered to customers, Freund said.

On the other hand, because there are no technology standards that Internet companies have agreed to follow to defeat spam, it's expected that they would develop their own strategies, Freund said. The question, however, is whether Internet companies will someday ask consumers to pay to ensure email delivery.

"That would have a damning effect on the Internet, if that's what comes to be," Freund said.

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