The great e-mail debate

Pub date April 25, 2006


TECHSPLOITATION 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 ambiance. We were there to ponder nothing less than the future of the free world — at least, if you define "free world" as free e-mail, 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 notion of having to pay for e-mail on top of that is a fairly repugnant one. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of companies who’d like to make a business model out of it. A case in point is Goodmail, a Silicon Valley start-up that provides a middleperson service called e-mail certification. Companies and banks that send bulk e-mail pay Goodmail to verify their authenticity, and Goodmail passes a cut to ISPs like AOL or Yahoo!, who whisk the certified mail past their spam filters and on to your in-box. The idea is that Goodmail’s certification helps e-mail recipients tell the difference between phishing e-mails 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 an open letter the EFF wrote to AOL asking it 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 e-mail — and particularly for tackling the epidemic phishing problem — and felt 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, the EFF’s activism coordinator and spam policy wonk. As soon as the two of them started bickering about e-mail protocol SMTP, I knew the fight was on.

A couple months later, I sat with about 100 other geeks who’d come to watch O’Brien ask Dyson why she wants e-mail senders to pay for the privilege. Turns out Dyson’s perfect universe doesn’t involve a Goodmail-style model. Instead, she favors a system wherein e-mail recipients are paid to read e-mail — if you thought a piece of mail is spam, you’d have the option to bill the sender. If you wanted the mail, you could 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 e-mail 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 whereby 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 that nobody had won. "We’ll see who turns out to be right in the future," he said, laughing. For my part, well, I’m a social economy idealist. In my perfect future, a hell of a lot more than e-mail will be free. But keeping one of the greatest engines of free speech from backsliding into the monetary economy is a good start. SFBG

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