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April 26-May 2, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

The Great Email Debate

By Annalee Newitz

GEEKS TURN social events into intellectual debates, so it should be no surprise that intellectual debates are often an excuse for geeky socializing. This was certainly the case at a recent benefit for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (my former employer), held at a San Francisco indie-movie theater known for its seedy-progressive ambience.

We were there to ponder nothing less than the future of the free world—at least, if you define "free world" as free email, which is something I know all of us have done once in a while.

Most people already pay an ISP for Internet access, so the idea of having to pay for email on top of that is a fairly repugnant notion. But that doesn't mean there aren't lots of companies that would like to make a business model out of it.

A case in point is Goodmail, a Silicon Valley startup that provides a middle-person service called email certification. Companies and banks who send bulk email pay Goodmail to verify their authenticity, and Goodmail passes a cut to ISPs like AOL or Yahoo!, which whisk the certified mail past its spam filters and on to your inbox.

The idea is that Goodmail's certification helps email recipients tell the difference between phishing emails and real requests for information from their banks.

Public sentiments went sour when AOL announced it would be using Goodmail, because it sounded a lot like a pay-to-play system in which only wealthy customers could afford to get their messages past the ISP's notoriously clueless spam filters. That could mean more spam rather than less. Worse, it would impair free speech on the net.

Nonprofit bulk mailers like activist group MoveOn might get their mail blocked simply because they couldn't afford certification. Nearly 500 nonprofit groups, fearing this scenario, signed on to an open letter that EFF wrote to AOL asking them to drop Goodmail's certification system.

Longtime EFF supporter and former board member Esther Dyson, however, objected to the campaign against Goodmail. As a free-market idealist, she welcomes any new business model for handling email—and particularly for tackling the epidemic phishing problem—and believed that Goodmail shouldn't be discouraged from testing its mettle in the marketplace.

When I argued with her about this at a recent conference, she threw down the gauntlet. "I'd like to debate EFF about this publicly. You tell them that," she said. Dutiful Dyson fan that I am, I made a beeline for Danny O'Brien, EFF's activism coordinator and spam policy wonk. As soon as the two of them started bickering about email protocol SMTP, though, I knew the fight was on.

A couple of months later, I sat with about 100 other geeks who'd come to watch O'Brien ask Dyson why she wants email senders to pay for the privilege. Turns out that Dyson's perfect universe doesn't involve a Goodmail-style model. Instead, she favors a system where email recipients are paid to read email—if you think a piece of mail is spam, you'd have the option to bill the sender. If you want the mail, you can accept it without charge.

Although Dyson admitted this system might require an unwieldy billing infrastructure and many market mishaps, she's nevertheless "pro-choice" when it comes to companies—even Goodmail—experimenting with business models for an email system that, she concluded, "simply can't be free anymore." O'Brien, for his part, made an impassioned case for the spam and phishing problems to be solved via social economies like the ones that have made Wikipedia and many open-source projects so successful. "Solving this by falling back on the monetary economy is an incredibly old-fashioned and conservative move," he said.

He urged everybody to look for nonmonetary economic solutions where communities collaborate to build tools that help certify legitimate mail and filter out spam and don't force people to pay cash to engage in free speech.

EFF founder and techno-freedom philanthropist Mitch Kapor, who moderated the debate, ended the evening by saying nobody had won; "We'll see who turns out to be right in the future," he laughed. For my part, well, I'm a social-economy idealist. In my perfect future, a hell of a lot more than email will be free. But keeping one of the greatest engines of free speech from backsliding into the monetary economy is a good start.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who uses open-source software to spam-filter the 8,000 emails she gets every day.

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