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Goodmail Hunting

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, March 18 2006

The debate over charging bulk email senders continues today with a strong op-ed piece by Esther Dyson in the New York Times that implicitly attacks all the arguments of the coalition. The issue was discussed during an open roundtable earlier this week at PC Forum, where Richard Gingras of Goodmail was given a chance to hold forth for a half hour.

I have to correct Dave Winer, who I have a lot of respect for, who just posted something on his blog about this. During the discussion at PC Forum, when Winer got the mike and asked for arguments against Goodmail, three were raised. (Not "no one did," Dave.) One came from Elliott Noss, CEO of Tucows, who argued that Goodmail was drastically overestimating the cost to ISPs of dealing with spam. Gingras had said they spend 75 cents to a dollar per email inbox fighting spam, per month; Noss, whose company provides email accounts to millions of customers, really pushed back on that number. He also argued that Goodmail could kill the email model if AOL makes so much money from it that they decide to tighten their spam filters too much.

A second argument came from someone who said that Goodmail wouldn't solve the phishing problem because motivated phishers would quickly figure out how to mimic Goodmail's "certified email" stamp, and indeed if someone was willing to pay Goodmail's 1/4 cent fee per email, presumably they could phish away. (Please, correct me if I am wrong about that.)

And the last person who raised a question was me. I noted that Goodmail had already altered its original business model and promised to reduce the email fee for non-profit senders down to one-fiftieth of a quarter of a cent (i.e. $.00005), and asked, what about political speech? The great value of the internet was that it has restored some real meaning to the phrase "free speech," in the sense that you don't have to be rich to effectively speak to many people. I asked if anyone else worried that there was an undesirable trade-off to making groups like pay thousands of dollars every time they send an email to their members.

If memory serves, I was interrupted at that point by Esther, who said "But it#039s spam!" Winer added words to that effect too. So I interjected and pointed out that MoveOn's list is all opt-in, so it isn't fair to accuse them of spamming people. Winer then said something interesting, that maybe I had a point and there ought to be a way for ISPs to rebate some of the money they make from Goodmail back to senders if their subscribers say that they do want their emails. Esther notes this in her oped, by the way, saying: "Ultimately, I believe, Goodmail or its successors will develop a mechanism to rebate some of the fees to the senders whose mail is wanted. That’s why I don’t worry about individuals and nonprofits being squeezed out."

A win-win scenario, perhaps?

Note to PDFers: We're working on hosting a debate on this issue, featuring voices from both sides, to be done by phone soon (I hope) and for sure at our conference in New York City May 15. Stay tuned for details.

UPDATE: Don't miss the comments in the thread to Dave Winer's original post. Lots of useful points being made.

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