If executives at America Online (AOL) get their way, schools and other educational organizations that send their constituents weekly updates, electronic newsletters, and other eMail communications would have to pay to make sure their messages get past AOL’s spam filters and into the in-boxes of the company’s more than 26 million online subscribers.

The deal, inked with a three-year-old California company called Goodmail Systems, would charge high-volume senders of eMail who try to contact AOL subscribers as much as a penny per message to guarantee that their eMail gets past the company’s spam filters. The fees would be divided between Goodmail, which offers a service called CertifiedEmail, and AOL, with the bulk of the revenue going to the online giant.

AOL bills its idea as a way to protect subscribers from the growing nuisance of spam, or junk eMail–the theory being that only legitimate senders of eMail will be willing to pay.

But the proposal, which AOL says it plans to implement within the month, has met with sharp criticism from members of the online community, including several schools and nonprofit organizations, which argue that the increased costs might prohibit them from reaching hundreds–even thousands–of constituents.

In an eMail message to eSchool News, Marc Liebman, superintendent for the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., called AOL’s proposal a “pay-for-eMail scheme” that will end up costing the company more than it would make from the deal.

If AOL carries out its plan, Liebman said, he would need to figure out how many stakeholders in his district subscribe to the company’s eMail service. If the number is significant, he said, the district probably would agree to pay the fee for a set period of time, while informing parents that eMail messages from the school system might be blocked after a certain date and encouraging them to change internet service providers (ISPs) or provide the district with an alternate eMail address for sending school-related communications.

Furthermore, Liebman said he would “suggest that [parents] drop AOL as an ISP, with the message that they are dropping it because they don’t want schools paying to send them information electronically.”

And it isn’t just educational organizations that are concerned by the proposal. “AOL’s [proposal] could potentially block every AOL subscriber suffering from any form of cancer from receiving potentially life-saving information,” said Gilles Frydman, head of the Association for Cancer Online Resources (ACOR). “Cancer patients may not be able to get resources simply because a nonprofit like ACOR–which serves more than 55,000 cancer patients and caregivers every day–cannot afford to pay AOL’s fee.” As concerns about the proposal and its impact on nonprofit organizations mount, a coalition of some 50 organizations–representing more than 15 million people–has formed in opposition to the plan.

Its organizers–which include ACOR, as well as members of the Free Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), two advocacy groups that promote free and open use of the internet–say if AOL goes ahead with its “pay-to-send” fee structure, charities, civic organizations, and other groups that rely on the internet to conduct outreach efforts will have no choice but to take their chances with AOL’s rigid spam filters, providing little or no assurance that their messages are being delivered.

Though senders who refuse to pay the fee won’t have their messages blocked automatically, AOL executives say, only those who do pay are guaranteed passage through the filters. Under the current proposal, messages that come from paying customers will be labeled as “AOL Certified,” while messages from non-paying senders will carry no such designation. Recipients also might be prohibited from clicking on links and viewing photographs or images featured as part of any non-certified eMails.

In defense of the proposal, AOL says the system is intended to help cut down on the number of unwanted solicitations subscribers receive in their eMail in-boxes.

Liz Bazini, a spokeswoman for Goodmail, added that nonprofit organizations–including schools–have little to worry about from the plan, because they will be offered a steep discount that amounts to a fee of about six-hundredths of a cent per message. For an organization sending a million messages per year to AOL subscribers, that would result in a payment of $625 per year.

Critics, however, say the program will do little to curb the amount of spam internet users receive. AOL, they say, is simply trying to turn a profit on the nuisance created by unsolicited eMails–and is doing so without fully understanding the consequence of its actions.

“Perversely, AOL’s pay-to-send system would actually reward AOL financially for degrading free eMail for regular customers as they attempt to push people into paid mail,” said Danny O’Brien, activism coordinator for the EFF. “AOL should be working to ensure its spam filters don’t block legitimate mail, not charging protection money to bypass those filters.”

The coalition’s campaign includes a web site–www.dearaol.com–where members of the public can sign an open letter to AOL and download a “Stop AOL’s Email Tax” icon for posting on their web site. The coalition’s site also contains an explanation of future campaign tactics, as well as a “letter to the editor” campaign intended to help opponents place submissions with local and national media outlets.

Coalition members include such politically diverse individuals and organizations as Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, MoveOn.org Civic Action, Gun Owners of America, the Humane Society, the AFL-CIO, and others. They predict AOL’s decision will have a chilling effect, not only on AOL subscribers, but on the broader internet.

“AOL’s pay-to-send scheme threatens the free and open internet as we know it,” said Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press. “The internet needs to be a level playing field. The flow of online information, innovation, and ideas is not a luxury to be sold off to the highest bidder.”

If AOL goes ahead with the plan, it will open the door for other service providers to follow in its footsteps, thus changing the internet from a free and open source of communication to “a privileged realm for those companies that can afford to pay what amounts to a corporate tax,” Karr said.

AOL isn’t the only service provider that is considering moving to a fee-based eMail model.

Yahoo also might implement a service similar to the one proposed by AOL, though a Feb. 28 report in The New York Times said its intentions were more exploratory in nature. Company representatives reportedly told the paper that unlike AOL’s more sweeping proposal, Yahoo would only charge fees to deliver message related to online purchases and financial transactions.

The coalition said Yahoo is not a target in its campaign.


America Online

Coalition’s web site: “Stop AOL’s Email Tax!”