Monetizing the Mailbox


Well here's something I never thought I would see: Yahoo and AOL are going to try to implement a program to charge companies for assured delivery of email to their base of email users. How dumb is this? Let us count the ways.

First, it's intrusive. Yahoo and AOL are telling their customers that they are going to monetize their mailboxes by selling access to them; pay your money and you're in. In effect, they are telling email users they no longer have control of this tool they use for their personal communications ... it's been turned into just another advertising billboard. Okay, Yahoo email accounts are free, so maybe like Gmail, looking at advertising is the price you pay. But AOL?

Second, since AOL and Yahoo can't totally restrict access to user email accounts, the offer is being positioned as "pay us for assured delivery or take your chances with our spam filters." Has there ever been a stronger financial incentive to make spam filters even tougher and more stringent? I see a ticking time bomb here, especially at AOL, which has a long history of choosing quick cash over customer satisfaction.

Third, to draw a highway analogy, this plan would be like setting up a toll-booth for the express lane only, leaving the local lanes free of charge. As you will instinctively see, this is not something likely to improve the overall flow of traffic.

Fourth, AOL and Yahoo are saying this new program will help root out scammers and phishers from user mailboxes. In fact, all the program will do is highlight ads from trusted senders. Other spam email will look just like it did before this program. Presumably there will be no "trusted" mail from deposed Nigerian oil ministers needing to borrow a bank account to temporarily park their millions. Yet the nature of many of these scams depends on the messages not looking like they were sent in bulk, so lack of certification may actually make some of them seem more legitimate.

Fifth, what if this program actually works? If users start trusting these trusted offers, the incentive to hack the system will be huge. And the first time that happens, Yahoo and AOL will quickly find themselves knee-deep in lawsuits.

Sixth, AOL and Yahoo are wrapping themselves in the flag, suggesting this program might somehow reduce spam overall. Nonsense. You don't deal a death blow to spam by imposing a fee on legitimate emailers. And as everyone knowledgeable about the issue knows, the only way to truly address spam is to address it at the point of origin, not its destination. This is nothing but a quick grab for cash.

I could go on, but I think you see my point. These companies may be big, but the Internet is much, much bigger. And as the now time-tested saying goes, "don't bet against the Net."

Update: This story is moving in Internet time. After a large outcry, AOL has now announced that while it isn't abandoning this new program, it has agreed to maintain its free white list for mailers as well as its free "enhanced" white list, both of which allow trusted companies access to AOL subscriber mailboxes. But as with most things AOL, while it's giving you something with one hand, the other hand is grabbing for your wallet. It seems that the free white list program actually doesn't assure delivery of messages, making it only slightly better than useless. Further, the free "enhanced" white list program isn't something you can apply for; AOL decides who participates in this exclusive club. The good news? If you're willing to pay to have your mail delivered, you, too, can enjoy all the benefits of club membership.

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