Fee-based e-mail plan raises eyebrows

A plan from Yahoo Inc. and America Online Inc. (AOL) to adopt an e-mail certification system that charges mass mailers a per-message fee is stirring concern in the market.

It has been over three months since Yahoo and AOL announced their intention to adopt technology from Goodmail Systems Inc. to further reduce the amount of spam and fraudulent phishing e-mail messages in their users’ inboxes. That announcement last October raised few eyebrows, but as Yahoo and AOL get closer to implementation, critics are speaking up.

Tom Gillis, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at IronPort Systems Inc., a provider of e-mail security products to large corporations and ISPs (Internet service providers), voices common concerns.

Charging mass mailers a fee is ineffective, because spammers are awash in cash, Gillis contends. Rather, systems should use other methods to authenticate senders’ identities and evaluate their reputation.

Technologically, Goodmail’s proprietary architecture is “very invasive,” Gillis said. “It needs to be carefully implemented, because it goes right into the mail flow. We’d worry about scalability and reliability.”

Consequently, IronPort, whose clients include Dell Inc., Gap Inc., Nasdaq and Time Warner Inc.’s RoadRunner and eBay Inc.’s PayPal, remains disinclined to adopt Goodmail’s technology. Instead, IronPort supports open-standards approaches that eschew sender fees, such as DomainKeys, backed by Yahoo and others, and Sender ID, backed by Microsoft Corp. and others, he said.

But Richard Gingras, Goodmail’s chairman and chief executive officer, said that existing approaches to combat spam and phishing fall short and consumers today are unwilling to open, and let alone reply, to e-mail messages from commercial entities.

This has created a major disconnection in e-mail communications between legitimate organizations and their clients. “The inbox isn’t safe and consumers don’t trust commercial messages,” he said.

He questions the naysayers’ motivation. “The criticism is coming from those who serve e-mail marketers and who would rather the system continue the way it is, as unfortunate as that might be,” Gingras said.

Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail service isn’t at all about making consumers pay for sending e-mail; it charges commercial bulk senders. Goodmail rigorously evaluates senders before accepting them into its program, and subsequently monitors them continuously, to ensure they send solicited, legitimate e-mail, he said.

The fee of between one-fourth of a cent and one cent per message serves as a further incentive for senders to be conservative in their mail volume, Gingras said.

Goodmail grants its senders encrypted tokens to embed in their messages, which in turn arrive with an icon in inboxes denoting certified legitimacy, he said. The American Red Cross and The New York Times Co. are testing the system.

AOL e-mail users will begin to see Goodmail certification icons within the next 30 to 60 days, said AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. Goodmail’s program is optional for commercial senders; AOL will keep using its existing e-mail scrubbing filters, which don’t apply a fee to senders, he said.

Meanwhile, Yahoo is “planning to test” the Goodmail system in coming months to provide added protection to users, the company said in a statement.

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