The Truth About AOL’s “Email Tax” and GoodMail

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There has been a great deal written about AOL’s supposed “email tax” since they announced their intent to implement GoodMail a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the first articles out of the box had a great deal of misinformation in them, including that this “email tax” would end up being levied against all email senders (not true), and that AOL was getting rid of all other avenues for legitimate senders to get their email delivered to AOL (also not true). The result when the articles first came out was that they created a tempest in a teapot.

Now, however, that tempest has turned into a firestorm.

First, let’s be clear. GoodMail is one of a number of email reputation, accreditation, and certification systems which provide a way for senders of legitimate bulk email to let the ISPs and spam filters know that their email is legitimate and wanted, and not spam. It is not the only such service (in fact, it is very much the new kid on the block in a rapidly growing, but well-established industry, and it faces some stiff competition from the original three email reputation and accreditation providers), and it is not the only avenue that AOL has open to legitimate bulk email senders. AOL has for ages maintained both a whitelist and an enhanced whitelist to which bulk email senders could aspire, and those who kept their noses clean and did things right were and are able to get on those lists, and stay on those lists.

As mentioned above, the first problem was that some of the initial press coverage erroneously stated that AOL was getting rid of all other avenues for legitimate email senders to get their email to AOL’s users, and that GoodMail was going to be the only avenue.

The second problem is that while, like all other such email services, GoodMail charges the sender for their certification, it looks different. This is because while email senders pay most other services, such as Bonded Sender, ISIPP and Habeas, a flat rate (based on either the volume of email they send as with Bonded Sender and Habeas, or based on their business model as with ISIPP), GoodMail charges per email. But it still works out to be the same thing, and that is what most people are missing. Whether I pay GoodMail .01 a piece to send out ten thousand pieces of email, or I pay some other service $10 per thousand to send out ten thousand pieces of email, I’m still going to end up paying $100 to send out that ten thousand pieces of email. There is no difference. But it looks different, especially when people start telling you that because it’s per piece, it’s an “email tax”.

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There is, however, a difference between GoodMail, and the other three. And some see it as a big problem.

GoodMail pays a kickback to ISPs which implement their solution. Now, of course, ISPs incur a financial benefit by implementing any of these “good sender” solutions, as they save money when they don’t have to spam-check email because they are already assured that it is wanted email. Make no mistake – 80 to 90% of all email going into any major ISP is spam, and you can be sure that a huge percentage of any ISPs overhead is dealing with that flood of spam, and having to weed through it all to make sure that they don’t accidentally throw out email that their users want. So being able to identify at the outset that wanted email is a great help.

But GoodMail takes that benefit a step further and actually pays the ISP a small cut of the email that GoodMail gets paid by the senders.


Great marketing for GoodMail, but terrible PR joojoo for AOL.

So with all of the misinformation out there, and GoodMail being branded an “email tax” because it’s per email, rather than per thousand, and hey, that sure makes it look like a tax, and with the added dollop of truth that GoodMail pays AOL for using them, everybody has been whipped into a frenzy.

And right in the middle of the frenzy-whipping are several little organizations of whom you may have heard, like the EFF, and the AFL-CIO, who have started and loaned their names to an Internet petition to get AOL to get rid of their horrible email tax which everyone will have to pay (which isn’t an email tax, and which not everyone will have to pay – in fact nobody has to pay it, but hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good rant, eh?)

Ironically, they make little, if any, mention of that one real difference – that AOL gets a kickback from GoodMail. The one factual basis for a possible issue with the AOL/GoodMail relationship is just a sidenote to the real issue: The Email Tax (which isn’t an email tax).

The funny thing is, this is the exact same argument which people used when Hotmail announced that it was going to use Bonded Sender, and the exact same argument which Habeas faced when it launched, and hey, guess what! It’s been years, and email is still being delivered in pretty much the same way that it always has or hasn’t been, and nobody has to pay anybody to get their mail delivered.

In fact, the other reputation and accreditation services are among those who stand to lose the most if AOL were to really require senders to use GoodMail, and only GoodMail, and if GoodMail were the only way to get into AOL! But do you see any of them getting their undies in a bunch over this? Nope. Because they know that AOL has no intention at all of making GoodMail the only one true way, or of implementing an email tax, or of doing away with their white lists.

But hey, like I said, why let a little thing like the facts get in the way?

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5 thoughts on “The Truth About AOL’s “Email Tax” and GoodMail

  1. Neither Goodmail nor Bonded Sender is purely “pay to play.” They’re both pay-to-get-accredited. Both have terms of use that prohibit things like address harvesting, that require working unsubscribes, that stipulate a maximum level of complaints. Just paying up isn’t going to get you on either list. You have to maintain some responsibility in your email practices, or you’re going to get kicked off. (Personally, I think the bar is set too low — among other things, confirmed opt-in should be a requirement, not just unconfirmed — but on the other hand, I don’t think Move On would qualify.)

    If Goodmail enforces its TOS, any spammers that sign up will get dropped once the complaints start coming in, and AOL will not be making money off the spam.

    So basically, the argument boils down to the assumption that Goodmail will either change or not enforce its terms of service and water down any advantage its tokens have as a non-spam sign, leading to complaints from end users who receive more spam, then go to other ISPs, resulting in a net loss of income for AOL. This is like assuming a security company is going to get in bed with bank robbers. Once someone notices that the banks you guard get robbed more often, your credibility — and your business — is shot. Of course, businesses do stupider things all the time, so who knows?

    Disclosure: I’m a member of the EFF, but I disagree with the official position on this one. I don’t work for AOL or Yahoo, but I do manage the spam filters for a small ISP (and no, we’re not likely to sign up with Goodmail anytime soon). You might find it surprising, but while there’s plenty of griping about AOL’s treatment of incoming mail in general, the anti-spam community as a whole (or at least the lists and sites that I read) doesn’t seem to be up in arms over the Goodmail deal.

  2. Kelson, how can an ISP that makes money off of spam instead of actively fighting spam, be a “Good Mail”? As one of the more than 5,000,000 petition signers to AOL, it’s the future we’re thinking of. How long before the free spam detector you enjoy now no longer is free? You have to pay and keep paying for constant updates because the technology keeps finding ways to get around it and your ISP is helping them. If one ISP is going to make money doing it, others are going to follow suit. AOL broke down and agreed not to charge non-profit organizations the other day. How nice of them. The name of the game is PROFIT. And I think we all have a good idea where the Free Internet will be left when PROFIT becomes the name of the game when ISP’s can make more money from spammers than they can from their customers. I encourage anyone to go to the Move website and read the open letter to AOL. I think it makes pretty good sense. And Aunty? As a fighter against spam,(?) how much did AOL pay you for this one?

  3. Over the last several years I have become very leery of folks saying “this is for your own good or trust me on this. We are now embroiled in an untenable occupation in the middle east, known throughout the world as torturers, justly or not, and now for ignoreing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Like the furor over port security this was another thing to mis-trust without knowing anything about it. This explanation helps me to turn down my paranoia a few notches but I still don’t understand how this is good for me. Someone paying a fee to stuff my mailbox still don’t seem right but there are truly much more important things to puzzle over.

  4. It seems to me that services like Bonded Sender would be vulnerable to spammers who are clever enough to register with the service and pay the fee. Even with the added cost of being “bonded,” wouldn’t the spammers still reap greater profits because they wouldn’t end up in the Junk Mail folder? I think ISPs should consider supplementing or replacing “pay to play” services like this with IP-based sender reputation scoring. The technology is out there.

  5. I tried to explain this the other day on Slashdot. I even linked to the 2-year-old Slashdot story on Hotmail and Bonded Sender. I got modded down as a troll.

    How do you explain what’s really going on to people who don’t want to listen?

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