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February 28, 2006

Nonprofits Declare War On AOL's Pay-To-Send E-Mail Plan



Courtesy of TechWeb News

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A diverse coalition of groups, many of them nonprofits, launched on Tuesday a campaign to pressure America Online Inc. into halting plans for a pay-to-send email system.

The coalition of 50 groups announced in a teleconference with reporters included political action committee MoveOn.org, Gun Owners of America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Association of Cancer Online Resources, the Humane Society, the AFL-CIO, and the media reform group Free Press. Among the individuals supporting the group was Craig Newmark, founder of popular classified ads site Craigslist.

In pressuring AOL, the coalition plans to circulate petitions among its memberships and to gather signatures online from the public in an open-letter to AOL that's available through the Web site DearAOL.com.

AOL, a division of Time Warner Inc., and Yahoo Inc. announced in January plans to offer a certified email system operated by Goodmail Systems Inc. Organizations that paid would be guaranteed that their bulk email would be delivered to the inboxes of the portals' email subscribers. The messages would arrive with an icon authenticating the sender, and email subscribers would have had to agree in advance to receive the email.

AOL planned to launch the service this quarter, and Yahoo expected to begin later in the year.

In denouncing pay-to-send systems Tuesday, the coalition argued that certified email is counter to the open system that has led to the wide adoption of email, which can be received and sent by anyone with a computer. Introducing a paid system, the group argued, would inevitably establish a two-tier system in which only people and organizations willing to pay Internet service providers could be certain their messages would be delivered.

"When there's a free service and a paid service, I can't think of any examples where the paid service isn't better," Eli Pariser, executive director of civic action for MoveOn.org, said.

The inevitable degradation of the free service, in the group's opinion, was just one of several problems. Paid email would also place nonprofits at a disadvantage, since many could not afford to pay; and therefore hamper the free flow of information on the Internet.

"The future of the Internet as we know it is at risk here when you allow corporations, such as AOL and others, to impose this sort of discriminatory regime over information and to profit from it in a way that serves no one but themselves," Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, said. "The free information that Americans have come to expect from this very democratic communication tool has become compromised."

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