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Asking whether the web’s technorati believe the infrastructure of the internet should remain free and open to all has always seemed as rhetorical as questioning the Pope’s Catholicism and the toilet habits of ursine creatures in wooded situations.
A long-held resistance towards any kind of pricing governing the flow of data over the net has been driving the argument in the issue of net neutrality – telecommunications providers should not charge for a clearer passage for data through their broadband because it would create a two-tier internet, the net veterans say.
After all, they already charge the pushers of data for delivering their internet service, as well as earning monthly subscriptions from users receiving it. Charging again for the speed of sending data through their networks would be like water companies charging for pressure on top of the amount being supplied.
But the question of whether the transport of e-mail should remain free appears to have split the internet community.
The lightning rod for this is AOL’s decision to introduce a service provided by Goodmail Systems that will charge the sender less than a cent per message to ensure guaranteed delivery to the recipient’s inbox. AOL would take a cut of the revenue generated.
It means such mail would bypass AOL’s spam filters and arrive clearly marked as certified mail that the user had consented to receive. The move sparked initial outrage in the internet community with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and MoveOn.org Civic Action leading a coalition of 500 organisations lobbying AOL through the dearAOL.com website.
They argue AOL could be the first of many companies to offer a service that could relegate e-mail sent by not-for-profit organisations to second-class mail that would run the gauntlet of spam filters. The net would be divided into two classes of users – those who could afford to pay for guaranteed delivery and everyone else left behind with an unreliable service.
But the easy parallels that can be drawn with regular letters and next-day delivery services offered by post offices have made the proposal seem more palatable to some.
Last month, attending PC Forum, the big-issues event hosted annually by internet grande dame Esther Dyson, I was surprised to find many attendees in support of Goodmail and AOL.
Ms Dyson herself led the pro-Goodmail arguments during a debate, at which Dave Winer, a founding father of blogs, asked for someone to argue against Goodmail and found no takers.
Ms Dyson followed up with a New York Times opinion piece where she said: “Goodmail in my eyes does not raise moral issues. It simply wants to make the internet a better place – and yes, make a little money along the way.”
She seems to accept that the internet has changed radically from its government and academic beginnings, to become a network where commerce is rampant and spam is rife. Customers will decide whether Goodmail is a good or bad idea, not internet pressure groups, she concludes.
For a newcomer to the scene, Goodmail has managed to make significant waves before it can even launch a service. It is testing its technology with the New York Times and American Red Cross and has signed a deal with Yahoo.
Yahoo has more limited plans for its introduction – confining its use to transactional messages, such as confirmations of orders or banks transmitting statements by e-mail.
A number of longer established companies offer services similar to Goodmail’s, including Return Path and Habeas. Habeas’s business model charges customers by the size of their e-mail lists and the frequency they send e-mails. It earns money from certifying them as valid, responsible senders and from providing detailed feedback to senders on how their e-mail campaigns have fared.
“Charging for [individual] e-mails is a dangerous thing,” Des Cahill, Habeas’s chief executive told me. “E-mail is like mom and apple pie – free e-mails and free internet is perceived as a right.”
He questions whether Goodmail’s method of making e-mail too expensive for spammers is the right approach and pushes his own company’s strategy of training all e-mail senders in good practices, leading ultimately to an open-standard credit rating for tens or hundreds of thousands of e-mail senders that will help tackle spam.
But Goodmail is bringing one more approach to bear in spam-busting, providing a machete-like tool for companies that can afford it, to clear their way through the e-mail jungle.
The ambivalent reaction from internet diehards suggests a creeping acceptance that the commercialism now clogging the net might need a commercial solution to clean it up. Habeas and others are already applying this indirectly; Goodmail and AOL are taking the flak for their brute-force approach of tackling the problem head on.