The Perils of Commercial E-Mail

Who is your e-mail provider working for? Is it working for you, or is it working for the companies that send you commercial e-mail?

Major e-mail providers are looking for ways to collect money for the e-mail they deliver, and if their plans go forward, that’s the question many of us could be wondering about.

E-Postage Stamps and Conflicts of Interest

Most e-mail revenue schemes currently being floated would have senders paying the electronic equivalent of postage to send messages to a company’s e-mail subscribers. America Online, which until recently was one of the largest Internet service providers in the world, is suggesting a system in which business would pay as much as a quarter cent for each e-mail message they sent to an America Online subscriber. A quarter cent doesn’t sound like much, but if businesses actually paid it, America Online could soon find itself making more money for delivering e-mail than it gets in subscriber fees.

This scenario raises troubling issues of conflict of interest. The potential for abuse is enormous. For example, would the e-mail provider “accidentally” block some e-mail messages in order to extract higher fees from companies sending e-mail? Might it allow e-mail senders to obtain parts of its subscriber list, in order to collect fees for the mail sent to those subscribers? Would it keep an e-mail box open after the subscriber is gone in order to collect e-mail delivery fees for messages that the former subscriber would never receive? Could it create phony subscriber accounts and use spider programs to solicit e-mail for those accounts so it can collect e-mail fees for subscribers who don’t even exist? An e-mail provider could easily do all of these things, and it could do them at the very lowest levels of management. If low-level managers are responsible for a part of the company’s profitability, as they are in many American businesses, they could create commercial e-mail fraud at any operational level without top management knowing about it, much like the pattern of billing fraud that helped bring down long distance carrier MCI.

The Commercial Bias

The fundamental problem, though, is not fraud, but merely the bias that comes naturally in a business whose revenue comes not from the consumers it nominally serves, but from commercial interests who pay to have their messages delivered to those consumers. Businesses in that position naturally go to some trouble to see that the commercial messages are delivered, even if it comes at considerable cost to the consumers. This is the same pattern that has all but destroyed commercial radio in the United States, and it could destroy Internet service providers who take on commercial e-mail operations in the same way if they are not careful.

A commercial radio station is paid for by the sale of as much as a fourth of its airtime for commercial messages. The entire operation of the station, from the selection of music or programming material to its personalities and equipment is geared toward getting as many listeners as possible to listen to the commercial messages. In the end, stations became so single-minded about this that the listeners, who the radio station was supposed to be serving, were forgotten. Listeners, in turn, forgot to turn the radio on, and commercial radio, at least in the United States, has gone into a downward spiral that it may not be able to recover from.

Internet service providers have already gone farther down that path than I had realized. America Online today gets more money from advertising than from subscriber fees. I recently switched to an Internet service provided by a major telephone company only to find that its e-mail service is already useless. As soon as I switched I noticed that most of my incoming e-mail was being blocked. There was nothing I could do about it except get my e-mail somewhere else.

Paying for E-Mail

The long-term solution, I believe, is a new e-mail protocol that is secure enough to prevent large volumes of bogus messages from getting into the system. In the meantime, I believe there is an opportunity for a dot-com startup to deliver e-mail for a fee, perhaps something like $25 a year for an e-mail address. The paid e-mail service would be a cut above the many free e-mail services out there (along with the premium services some of them offer) and would allow Internet users to separate their e-mail addresses from the increasing flaky companies who provide Internet access. Instead of taking the risk of having much of your e-mail blocked by a commercial-minded company, you could pay a small fee to put your e-mail in the hands of a company whose sole focus is taking care of your e-mail. It would be similar to the e-mail service provided by many web hosting companies, but with the emphasis on e-mail delivery instead of a web site. Maybe this kind of service exists already, but when I looked around the Internet, I didn’t see any sign of it. Are there any dot-com entrepreneurs out there who can come to our rescue?

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