Salsa Scoop> He's The One They Call Dr. Goodmail

He's The One They Call Dr. Goodmail

As readers of this space (both of you) have probably heard, AOL unveiled a new spam-control policy a few days ago to stentorian reaction online. Briefly stated, AOL (and Yahoo, soon) plan to charge a fee per e-mail to deliver mail to its subscribers through a program called Goodmail.

The notion of e-mail postage stamps as a spam control option has been floating around for a while (since postage fees do such a great job of preventing snail-mail spam), but this looks like both less and more than meets the eye. Less part first: it won't cost you, the average user, to send an individual message to

Goodmail, instead, is a protection racket for bulk mailers.

Spam control currently operates through a jurisdictional patchwork as coherent as medieval Germany. Depending on how you view your e-mail, you might have local filters on your own program -- "free teens" in the title goes straight to the trash, for instance; or, a scoring application like SpamAssassin -- network-level filters controlling all e-mail to -- which might use keyword filtering akin to local filters and/or various combinations of privately run (and essentially unaccountable) blacklists and whitelists -- and, in the case of a major provider like AOL, Yahoo or Hotmail, what amount to in-house blacklists and whitelists populated by business considerations, or by spam reports generated by clicking the "This Is Junk" button.

And what Goodmail is, is a business consideration.

Turns out that the existing welter of spam police all stay exactly in place, even for AOL and Yahoo. Goodmail just creates a toll road to circumvent them.

It's a lot easier to see how this helps the Goodmail cadre than how it helps you, whether "you" describes the manager of an NGO mailing list, or the owner of an e-mail account that subscribes to them.

As it stands, a vendor like DemocracyInAction conducts continual diplomacy (and occasional skirmishes) with the assortment of spam fiefdoms, trying to stay in the good graces of these capricious princelings and thereby keep your e-mails hitting your supporters' inboxes (or, if you're a supporter, keeping the newsletter subscriptions you want hitting your inbox without having to wade through the free digital camera offers). If a member organization is smart, it's paying obeisance, too -- by shunning red-flag words like "Viagra", for instance, to avoid upsetting message filters.

None of that changes -- the jack Goodmail extracts doesn't make anyone's life any easier. But AOL and Yahoo now get rent for a resource they've been providing for free: marketing access. They now have a financial incentive to put non-Goodmail bulk messages in a chokehold. (Why adjudicate a whitelisting appeal -- and it's already a bear to be whitelisted by AOL -- when you can just charge for it?) And they have an equally compelling incentive to stop filtering certain forms of spam. (Why block marketing messages across the board when you can demand a piece of the action instead?) You are to Goodmail as factory chickens are to Tyson's Foods.

The Goodmail FAQ promises free delivery for what it calls "qualified non-profits ... for the duration of 2006." So, no need for the nonprofits using DIA to sweat anything for the time being. But the expiration date on this program alone is troubling, and it's unlikely that political campaigns and other non-non-profit users of the DIA toolset will be similarly blessed, unless it's as a payoff to Congress to dodge regulatory oversight.

Many of the details of this program remain to be fleshed out over the months ahead. We're seeking omens in the entrails as I write this, and there'll be more from DIA in this space. There's a chance, like the entire corpus of end-of-spam eschatology to date, that it'll simply founder and vanish. There's also a chance it could provoke the Internet equivalent of the Thirty Years War as e-empires and lesser duchies and estates, aligned in a jumble of rival faiths, clash with each other and their rebellious subjects.

Probably won't be like that. But you might want to keep your crossbow strung, just in case.


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