Applause goes out to Esther Dyson for her recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, You've Got Goodmail. She points out that Goodmail's service is like "FedEx for e-mail," except that Goodmail provisions its service atop the ISPs' services. So it's more like FedEx without its own planes. But I sort of like that analogy because the opposing forces seem to be conveniently overlooking some obvious facts here.
First, and most important, it doesn't matter if the letter is sent bulk, first class, second-day or overnight, somebody has to open it on the other end. And much, if not most, of the bulk mail addressed to "resident" goes straight to the recycle bin. Wouldn't it be great if you could say, "Please stop wasting paper on me" or "keep me on your mailing list."
That's the service that Goodmail is offering e-mail senders and receivers. It's good for legitimate senders because they don't want to be continually annoying people with unwanted messages anymore than they want their messages filtered out as spam before the receivers have a chance to decide for themselves. And it's good for receivers because they can see before they open a message if it is coming from an approved sender.
The other thing that the coalition of public interest groups and non-profit organizations known as DearAOL.com seem to ignore in their arguments is that major ISPs like AOL need to continually find better ways to hinder those that abuse the "free and open Internet." If they don't, they will lose customers. I'm not convinced that Goodmail is the ultimate solution for the heavy volume of virus-laden spam and phishing attacks but, as Dyson points out, it's an idea and ideas need to be explored because Spam is the real enemy here.The level of trust in e-mail marketing messages is, today, almost non-existent. We can't trust that the message is coming from who it claims to be coming from, so we certainly can't trust that it is safe to open. The same goes for e-mail sent from non-profit organizations. To combat this we've become e-mail vigilantes, blocking and reporting everything that looks or smells like spam.
ISPs have been forced to do much the same thing. At least once a day I have to go drag the false positives out of the spam folder. And I will gladly continue doing it until something better comes along, at which point I would even consider paying for whatever that better thing might be. It is on this point that Dyson wrote "pretty soon sending most e-mail will cost money, but I think that's only right." And, of course, the coalition jumped all over that claiming Dyson has blown AOL's cover by acknowledging that AOL's proposed pay-to-send service will "lead to a world where sending e-mail is no longer free."
What they fail to point out is that can only happen if a critical mass of senders—and that's a huge mass in AOL's case—elect to subscribe to the premium service. Personally, I don't see that happening any time soon.
In fact, the Dyson quote held up by the coalition was actually made in the context of a point she was making about how market forces will dictate whether or not the Goodmail model will work or not. She even put on her pundit hat and predicted an evolutionary track where e-mail senders and recipients realize rebates when the mail is certified as wanted by the recipient.
Finally, I have to point out once again that e-mail is not free today. It either comes as part of our Internet access service or we pay a third party to use their e-mail servers. Or, in the case of most larger businesses, the e-mail servers are purchased and maintained in-house. It all costs money and will continue to cost money. But there is competition, so we have choices and we have to see value in those choices or we won't spend more money.