EFF's sender pay email debate ends in draw

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.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

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]

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