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Getting Ahead Of Ourselves: The AOL E-Mail Battle Continues

The can of worms that has become America Online's certified e-mail delivery strategy just won't go away. It's not that other e-mail providers haven't offered the very same or similar services; it's just that this can of worms is being used to catch the biggest fish in the lake.

AOL will soon begin offering a fee-based, guaranteed e-mail deliver service based on GoodMail's Certified Email technology and the coalition is ratcheting up the pressure against the move. One assumes that the coalition's strategy to get AOL to cave would send the message to other providers that they're next.

The coalition, now over 500-members strong, continues to mount a PR campaign. The latest move brought California Senator Dean Florez (D) into the fray with a comment and a promise that he would look further into the "risks faced by consumers under the AOL proposal." In fact, a new California task force, the Select Committee on E-Commerce, Wireless Technology and Consumer Driven Programming, plans to hold a hearing on the matter later this month.

I'm still a little hazy on what those "risks" might be. While AOL is effectively setting up another tier of service, it isn't changing its existing service. So what are those risks? It all seems to hinge on the coalition's speculation that the existing e-mail service will deteriorate as AOL invests more in the new service. I can't really believe that AOL would do something so foolishly detrimental to is core business, but if it did, the risk would be that customers would walk.Florez was credited with the following quote in the coalition's most recent press release: "It seems to me that AOL is setting a horrible precedent here. The whole ideal of net neutrality gets wiped away, and we are left with an Internet of haves and haves not."

Florez said he will ask the committee to consider the prospect of creating in California law a section dedicated solely to regulation of the Internet. Regulating the Internet? Someone might want to explain to the good senator what the Internet actually is and why that's an awfully presumptive statement. That would be like regulating the weather. And doesn't that raise some red flags with a few of the guiding organizations within the coalition, organizations like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Civic Action?

Just take a look at what happened to New Jersey Assemblyman Peter Biondi's bill to legislate Internet etiquette by requiring people to provide their real names and addresses before posting on public Web sites. His office got flamed big time and the backlash came from all over, not just New Jersey.

What were they thinking, that they could actually enforce such a thing at the state level?

So what will current AOL users have less of when the certified delivery service gets provisioned? The coalition supposes that AOL is effectively forcing its customers to move to the paid service or risk having their e-mail blocked as spam. Again, that would be a suicide move and I can't see AOL making it. Messages get blocked today. Any time a spam filter is in place, it could block your message. But I haven't heard of any groundswell to have AOL remove its spam filters.

If 65 million people decide there is enough value in the new service and migrate over, then AOL has made a good business move and the free service will, indeed, become the stepchild. Don't hold your breath for that.

In all the furor over certified e-mail, there are just too many assumptions that don't hold up. Here's what I think: The certified service will appeal to the bulk senders out there that want to achieve or maintain a reputable position in online business. Assuming that a sufficiently high percentage of their e-mails are plunking in spam buckets today, the service would provide a good meter for how many people really want to receive their missives.

Consumers would only move off their "free" (a misnomer, since they already pay a connection fee) e-mail service if the quality of that service changed, and then they'd probably move to a different service provider.

For an opposing view, check out this San Jose Mercury News editorial.