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Hot on the Web

Charging for spam

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 7, 2006
(Issue 2414, The Apple Core)

America Online finds itself back in the news in mid-February as the target of political operatives crying that their free speech rights are being violated by the online giant.

The cause of their ire?

AOL will, for a fee, allow mass e-mailers (that's spammers to you and I) to bypass AOL's anti-spam filters and get direct access to e-mail accounts in AOL's domains ( and

A group of mass e-mailers have formed a coalition to fight AOL's proposal, arguing that they have a right to get free access to AOL accounts, no strings attached. The groups –, and the U.S. Humane Society (not related to local humane societies), among others – argue that as nonprofit political advocacy groups, they have a fundamental right to send out as many e-mails as they want over the Internet, and if that causes additional expenses for everyone else, tough.

Of course, by that argument, the Postal Service, UPS and FedEx should all be delivering fund-raising pitches from these groups for free, too.

Besides, there's a whole community involved in all this whose views are being completely ignored: AOL's subscribers who stand to start seeing a whole lot more spam in their in-boxes if this proposal is put into practice.

It's quite possible AOL's subscribers don't care if spammers pay a fee, they don't want to get that spam, period.

Bogus free speech argument

Anyway, the coalition's argument that AOL's policy stifles free speech is utter nonsense. Anyone who signs up to receive newsletters, announcements or any other mass e-mail from these groups can quite easily add them to their "approved" list (assuming AOL has such basic e-mail technology, which Gmail, Hotmail and others have long offered) and they won't have to worry about getting dumped into the spam can.

If they're e-mailing folks whose names they found on purchased mailing lists, they're already in violation of numerous state laws on unsolicited e-mail.

William Green was quoted as saying his group, (a conservative version of sends out 2-3 million e-mails per week; unless every recipient has signed up for those, he's spamming and will get little sympathy from most of his recipients.

There are already many services that can avoid the whole mass e-mailing spam filter woes; these services (including, Blizzard E-mail and, among many, many others) use powerful servers and mailing list databases to send out individual messages, one at a time, to every address on the mailing list. No more e-mail headers with several hundred addresses in the BCC field, a huge warning sign to most spam filters.

It costs a little money, true – but if you're legitimate, don't you want to do things the right way?

Bearing the cost

Yes, it's true, when we sign up with an ISP, part of our subscription fee covers an e-mail account. Or we may sign up for an advertiser-supported webmail service like Hotmail, Yahoo, Netscape, or Gmail.

But the original model for e-mail services was that each of us would use our accounts to stay in contact with family and friends, and possibly subscribe to some newsletters.

I don't think the original developers of the SMTP and POP mail protocols, nor those who priced early e-mail accounts, ever foresaw that e-mail spam would dwarf physical junk mail.

All of us are bearing the costs of spam - businesses have to purchase and maintain more expensive servers than they would otherwise need to handle the volume, not to mention run anti-span software filters. Businesses – from to your local ISP – have to purchase far more bandwidth than they would otherwise need, because of all the unsolicited e-mail.

Who pays for this additional computing power, storage capacity and bandwidth, all due to e-mail that almost no one wants?

You and I.

Whether it's online merchants charging more for each item to cover the additional overhead costs that spam generates or its our local ISP charging more for our DSL, cable or dial-up access, the fact remains that this burden on the Internet infrastructure has to be paid for by someone.

Right now, it's us.

AOL is merely suggesting that those most directly involved in creating this demand shoulder their fair share.

If these political advocacy groups can't afford to send out so many e-mails, then perhaps they're not quite as well-supported by the public they claim to represent as they thought.

Regardless, demanding that the rest of us subsidize their e-mail campaigns is not only unfair, it could also have the unintended result of getting the rest of us to tune their political message out.