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Shoot The Messenger, Not The Medium

Black lists and white lists . . . what does it all mean? To many of us it all looks like spam. I once asked an associate of mine on the sales side of the house what makes for legitimate advertising. His response, while understandable, was a bit disturbing. His philosophy was any ads that are paid for are legitimate. It took me a while, and I didn't like myself better as a result, but I started to see his point.

As a culture, we've accepted without necessarily appreciating the notion of advertising as the means of paying the freight for all the various forms of passive media that we digest. We might be put off by the sheer volume, poor quality or content that offends, but we accept it in order to partake of the content that we purchase.

When it comes to interactive media, however, we draw a line. We don't like the marketers interacting directly with us, uninvited. We don't like it on our phone systems, we don't like it on our messaging systems, and we don't like our Web sessions interrupted by pop-up ads. It's more intrusive and makes us feel helpless, because we've lost the control that we can normally exert as subscribers to content.The problem with spam and spim is that its usually riding the medium for free, not associated in any way with the content we seek, and downright impossible to avoid.

So what would happen if it were paid for?

I can already feel the heat of those e-mail flames, so let me explain.

As soon as Goodmail announced this week that AOL and Yahoo! signed on to use its CertifiedMail service, the cries of alarm started to sound. One in particular caught my attention. It came from Des Cahill, CEO of Habeas Inc., a Goodmail competitor, so I had apply my usual does of sodium.

CertifiedMail, and other sender accreditation services like the Habeas Safelist, seek to create communities of trust where legitimate marketers and service providers agree to pay a fee and play by certain rules in order to keep their messages from sliding into spam buckets along the way. That's an oversimplification, but essentially accurate. So I wondered at first if Cahill wasn't pointing the finger at himself when he said of the Goodmail deal with the Web portal giants, "What we are witnessing here is the 'monetization' of consumers' inboxes."

He's right, although "monetization" isn't a real word. Politicians made it up to slam the policies of other politicians. Cahill's point is that marketers with sufficiently deep pockets will be able to pay Goodmail to deliver their messages, and that no one should be able to purchase a good reputation. He pointed to Habeas' extensive list of qualifications and best practices to which senders must adhere to achieve and maintain Habeas certification.

So I did some checking and Goodmail claims to have an extensive accreditation process where senders complete an application and submit details about their organization and their mailing policies. Goodmail said it then verifies the information, a process that can take up to two weeks.

Both the Goodmail and Habeas service claim to be self-policing in that receiver and ISP complaints are monitored, as is compliance with the policies.

Here's what I think: Services like these will only be effective if the senders get what they pay for. So Cahill's observation about "monetization" is correct, but it applies across the board. If legitimate senders that use a white list service see their delivery rates go up after playing by all the rules, then everyone wins as long as those rules are sufficiently exclusionary to weed out the spammers, phishers and fraudsters.

And on that last point, the jury of market forces is still out.

This won't be the last we hear from either of these players. Both can point to successful testimonials. And as the dialogue continues, I'd like to hear your thoughts.