EFF's sender pay email debate ends in draw

EFF's sender pay email debate ends in draw

Summary: Last night Mitch Kapor, Esther Dyson and Danny O’Brien debated the pros and cons of sender-pay email at a fundraiser for the Electronic Frontier Foundation held at the Roxie Film Center in the Mission district. Actually Mitch was the moderator, but the co-founder of EFF and Chair of the Open Source Applications Foundation got a few shots in.

TOPICS: Collaboration

Last night Mitch Kapor, Esther Dyson and Danny O’Brien debated the pros and cons of sender-pay email at a fundraiser for the Electronic Frontier Foundation held at the Roxie Film Center in the Mission district. Actually Mitch was the moderator, but the co-founder of EFF and Chair of the Open Source Applications Foundation got a few shots in.


Esther Dyson talks as Danny O'Brien and Mitch Kapor take notes

The seeds of the debate go back to a New York Times op-ed Esther wrote about Goodmail, which provides a solution for sender-pay email that AOL and Yahoo plan to use. Subsequent to the publication organizations including DearAOL.com, EFF and Moveon.org pilloried Esther, calling the Goodmail and sender pay concept an email tax.

According to DearAOL.com, a coalition opposing Goodmail usage on AOL, “This system would create a two-tiered Internet in which affluent mass emailers could pay AOL a fee that amounts to an "email tax" for every email sent, in return for a guarantee that such messages would bypass spam filters and go directly to AOL members' inboxes.”

Esther responded on this blog, “I just don't think we all need EFF and MoveOn.org to protect us from bad business ideas, or to keep twisting the description of a voluntary paid service for senders into ‘an email tax.’”

Esther also said she was misquoted by DearAOL, and that she was espousing something that isn’t part of Goodmail, a model in which email recipients could be paid to receive email unless it’s mail that they want.  It’s part of a “commercial ecosystem that will reduce spam and fund an environment in which the burden of (and financial liability for) figuring out whether e-mail is wanted will rest, appropriately, with the sender,” she wrote. However, users getting economic incentives (money) imposes far more complexity and cost in a system.

More recently, AOL blocked messages mentioning DearAOL for period of time, adding fuel to the already blazing fire. As the DearAOL.com Coalition put it:  “AOL cannot be trusted to put the free and open Internet above its own self-interest.” However, it’s not credible to believe the AOL CEO Jonathan Miller or any other executive mandated this block.

What became clear during the friendly debate was complexity of the issue. Neither pundit, investor, fellow CNETer, PC Forum, former EFF and ICANN chairperson, PC Forum host Esther, representing the sender pay concept side, or Danny, EFF activist coordinator representing the bad idea, chilling effect on free speech, zero transaction cost for sharing information point of view, could be declared a winner.

It was more like a political debate, with the two sides talking past each other, using a different set of data points, while the CEO of Goodmail Systems, Richard Gingras (sitting next to me), was grimacing as Danny described the sender-pay model as anti-free speech.

After the debate, I asked Richard what he thought about the debate. “It was a theoretical debate about sender pay, but it had little relationship to what Goodmail certified email is all about,” he said. “We are an optional service for companies and organizations who want an extra level of security and authentication to make sure messages are properly delivered. The only people who would use us are commercial entities and non-profits.”

Goodmail first accredits companies (based on their email practices), and them messages are sent through its CertifiedEmail service, which have secure tokens attached to verify to the recipient that the message is really from that sender. Sending emails via GoodMail would cost a fraction of cent per email, Richard said.


Goodmail's sender-pay implementation

During the debate, Danny said the he wasn't worried about sender pay, because no one seems to want it, just like micropayments. Sender pay email would create an “artificial market,” and provide spammers with a way and “Eron-style system” to get around anti-spam filters.

Esther countered that she trusts the market forces, and an environment of experimentation, letting Goodmail or any other system addressing the spam and phishing problems prove its business model or fail in the market. “It’s the sender’s burden to decide to send mail and deal with consequences of recipients who don’t want it,” Esther said. “The recipients make the rules.” She added that there isn’t “something holy that says email should be free.” In fact, many ISPs charge users for send to bulk mail.

Esther also said that if the market doesn’t get it right, government agencies like the DOJ or FTC could step in, which was not viewed by Danny as a positive direction. “Infrastructure that supports pay for email is vulnerable to be taken over by government,” Danny said. “Introducing systems where control can be imposed in exactly issue we worry about.” Esther qualified that government intervention would only occur if there were abuse of power, and that it's good for companies like Goodmail to have competition.

Another concern with sender pay from the EFF camp is “perverse incentives.” AOL would make money using Goodmail, and have an incentive to maximize the revenue, which could lead to unsavory business practices. Smaller ISPs would have less incentive to invest in anti-spam solutions if they could make money signing up senders to Goodmail or another certification service, Danny said. “If you capped the amount to help build system, it would be ok, but pay per email is effectively unbounded income. The more people they move to it the more money they make.” The profit motive will drive behavior that doesn’t benefit users. Esther characterized Danny’s vision “creating scare stories that are not real.”

Richard did get a chance to respond to the various characterizations of Goodmail. “We are not an overall sender payment service. We never proposed that every sender pay—it is specific to commercial senders. There is a revenue share with the ISPs, who have to invest supporting the system. If they couldn’t make some of the dollars back, they would not happen.” He estimated that Goodmail would generate about 30 cents a month per user per ISP in revenue.


Richard Gingras gets his chance to defend Goodmail's sender-pay system

Richard addressed Danny’s contention that AOL or Yahoo would  block non-certified email to make volume, commercial senders pay to get in the system. “If that were so, their own users would complain about not getting mail,” he said.

White lists came up as a possible solution, but most ISPs don’t have the resources to do it and there isn’t a white list “commons” (Mitch’s word), which could serve as a central, authoritative repository that all ISPs could use. “Economically it would be more efficient to use a commons based social product approach to solve problems, rather than ISPs having to make money to solve the spam problem,” Mitch said. Esther responded: “My white list is not your white list and my black not your black list. I don’t want monopoly or government to choose for me.”

“We need more sophisticated ways to deal with spam that fit into non-monetary economics,” Danny said, throwing in the “attention” economy. “Sender pay is conservative way to solve spam with monetary market.” 

During the audience participation part of the debate, Marc Perkel, EFF’s first system administrator and now of junkemailfilter.com, declared that both sides are "dead wrong," and that the spam filter community should have been part of the debate. “EFF is a religious position for free speech and ignores reality,” he said. He recommended anti-spam filters as a way to deal with email authentication.
Danny responded that EFF is talking with more people in the anti-spam community, and noted that users should know what messages have been blocked. The international dimension and lack of enforcement of anti-spam laws in the U.S. were also mentioned as contributing factors to the current problems with spam.

Mitch ended the debate and conversation by encouraging EFF to create a public space to allow more collaboration and participation. “Capturing other viewpoints would be a good sequel.”  Well said...

Bonus link: Irina Slutksy of Geek Entertainment TV interviews Mitch, Danny and Esther [Video]

Topic: Collaboration

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  • sender mail

    one of two things will happen:

    1) Users get wise to the fact that goodmail simply = spam and start ignoring it, forcing the scheme to end.

    2) People leave AOL for a 'real' ISP, not some walled-in-garden system with proprietary protocols/censorship etc...

    Since Option 2 is already in progress (witness AOL's subscriber base falling faster than General Motors share price) maybe there won't be enough aol users left for option 1 to even be an issue :)
    • Give people choices: FREE access w/advertisement,spam & paid CLEAN Internet

      Advertisers and spammers will pay for free Internet.
      Vily Clay
      • Except...

        ..that there's no incentive, or dis-incentive, as the case may be, for Joe Spammer to stop spamming people who don't want their trash emails in their mailbox.

        And just because you pay for a "clean email account", do you think Joe Spammer will care? Do you think he'll say "Oh wait, he's paying for a spam free account, so I better not send any email to him!"? If you do, you have a thing or two to learn about the scum known as spammers.

        What disgusts me about this whole thing is that it's doing NOTHING to stop spam. All it does is make sure a spammer who pays the toll fee will not have his spam deleted by the ISP's filters and at the same time lines the pockets of the big service providers as payment for letting their customers be spammed.
        Hallowed are the Ori
  • A new technology supplants an OLD one

    ....that doesn't have the same continuous costs to deal with...Did all the horses and donkeys all decide to charge a LEVY on automobiles when they showed up? Are we now supposed to pay for the consequences of obsolescence? Where will this end? If Ford sells more trucks than GM, does that mean Ford has to pay a subsidy to GM for lost business? I smell the stench of lawyers....
    Feldwebel Wolfenstool
  • Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Listen

    Most people know that the internet is looeley based on public librarires and newspapers. You can find a wealth of information at the public library for free. You can find info in your local newspaper for 50 cents a copy. Neswspapers make their money from advertising. They list ads from Toyota, Dodge and Ford. Although the above are competitors, the each pay a similar negotiated rate for advertising in the paper and the consumer goes and test drives the cars and picks the one he likes the best, or chooses to turn the page and not buy a car at all.
    Now hers where it goes awry. Spammers sneak into the newspapers wharehouse at night and stick in thousands of advertismeents for junk. Now I have a 1600 page newspaper on my front door. It takes me hours of sorting through every page to find the Dodge ad, and the Supermarket ad that I really want to see. I have to sort through 1100 pages of junk to find out what the status of a local business meeting takes place.
    So stop ordering the paper, so now some spamemr drives around at night and leaves 1100 pages of flyers on my front door step that I now have to get up and throw away.
    If aol really wants to sell email advertising to select clients, and I am forced to look at it (no opt out list), I should receive half of aol.com's income (I'm just gonna delete it all anyways). then I'll sign up for about 100 aol.com user accounts,and sit around making $2000 per month, deleting mail.
    So the newspaper philosophy doesn't really work, the public library philosophy works. keep all the advertising in the junk email section, so I only have to go look through it when I want.
  • Why does Goodmail get all the press?

    Cashette's (http://www.cashette.com) system puts the power where it should be: in the recipient's hands. Any sender that want's [i]me[/i] to view spam, has to pay [b]me[/b], with Cashette earning its cut of the revenue. Rather than an e-mail "tax", I would characterize such a sender-pay system as e-mail "postage".

    Cashette seems (to me) to represent, exactly, the "...recipients make the rules...? type of sender-pay system that Esther Dyson described in the article.
  • Users should not pay the price of spam

    Cyber crime is probably the biggest threat to the evolution of the Internet as it undermines users? and businesses? trust in this medium; spam had already changed e-mail such that it is no longer a trustworthy tool of communication for many users and businesses.

    The AOL/GoodMail system would not stop spam since spammers use hijacked computers infected with a virus allowing them to send spam from innocent users? PCs. If an email ?toll? would be in place, users (and not spammers) would literaly pay the price of spam.

    Internet users have the power to make a difference and make the Internet a better place. As a long time user of Blue Security?s Blue Frog ([u]http://www.bluesecurity.com/blue-frog[/u]), I am confident that the company?s proactive and community-based approach is not only the right thing to do, but it is also a very effective one.
  • Penny Black Project

    What ever happened to Microsoft's Penny Black Project? They hired a researcher who found a memory-bound algorithm that would require a sender to spend 0.25 to 2 seconds to send an email. The computation would be sent with the mail and could be quickly verified. If the email had the Penny Black, you wouldn't block it. Spammers would need to invest in hundreds, if not thousands, of computers to send spam that wouldn't be blocked. This seems to be a simple, free solution that AOL could take advantage of since, I assume, it provides an e-mail program to its users.