Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dear AOL

For the past month, I've been reading about AOL's proposed email tax and the resultant outrage; and this week, a slew of companies including the AFL-CIO, United Farm Workers, and Oxfam America formed a coalition called DearAOL to protest the proposed tax. Frankly, I'm getting sick of hearing about this nonsense, so let's straighten a couple things out.

Right now, AOL has a spam filter. If your mother sends you an email, you'll get it. If the Democratic National Committee sends an email to you and 3,000 other recipients, it'll be blocked. That's the way it's supposed to work. It's not perfect, but it's as good as anything currently available — which is to say, it doesn't really work, it still allows spam and occasionally, you'll have to fish through your junk mail folder to find a legitimate email that AOL dumped.

The purpose of this filter, obviously, is to block spam. AOL is proposing that companies pay $0.0025 per message, in return for which their emails will automatically bypass the spam filter and will be delivered directly to your inbox. Companies are furious because, in the words of DearAOL, this action will "disrupt the communications of millions who cannot afford to pay [AOL's] fees — including the non-profits, civic organizations, charities, small businesses, and community mailing lists."

Read this next sentence slowly, because it's important: This is not a tax.

Every definition of tax includes the word "compulsory." This is not a tax. Every man, woman, and nonprofit on the planet may continue to send email to AOL users, free. Maybe it will be delivered. Maybe it will be filtered. The existing filter is poor and flawed, so there's no way to tell; and in any case, the recipient will probably see it when he's forced to sift through his spam folder next week for a missing email from his grandmother. Life will go on, unaffected.

The only people this will screw are AOL subscribers. AOL is not saying to companies, "Pay us, or we won't deliver your email." They are saying, "If you slip us a bribe, we'll give you preferential treatment and totally ignore our promise to block spam from subscribers."

That is not a tax. Companies are calling it a tax because they want you to get mad. They want public opinion to rise against AOL so that AOL will agree to deliver their spam, free. Those companies don't want to pay. They're cheap. And they don't give a damn about your rights or privacy — obviously, because they're in the business of sending the very spam that you don't want to receive. If they cared about you, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Spam wouldn't exist.

AOL's proposal has been compared to postage stamps. That's a stupid analogy. The equivalent to postage stamps would be if the US Postal Service promised Wal-Mart that, if Wal-Mart paid them $2.5 million per year, mailmen would deliver their stupid coupons to every household, whether you wanted to receive them or not. Nope, AOL isn't trying to screw the companies. They're trying to screw you.


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