On the heels of protests last week from a group of activists led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), AOL has announced it will offer free e-mail deliverability services to qualifying not-for-profit organizations and not-for-profit advocacy groups.
Dulles, Va.-based AOL said that it will offer nonprofit organizations two new free e-mail options that possess many of the features, including images and Web links, of the company's premium service designed for commercial mass e-mail.
The decision addresses an outcry from political and civic activist groups, which said AOL's plans to charge mass senders of e-mail a fee to reduce junk mail amounted to an "attack" on the "free existence of online civic participation."
The company said that it is seeking to make it "crystal clear" that nonprofit groups would have all their e-mails delivered, including enabled Web-links and images, contrary to recent criticism in the media by advocacy groups.
There will be no requirement, ever, for not-for-profits who deliver e-mail to AOL members to pay for e-mail certification and delivery, Charles Stiles, AOL's Postmaster, said.
The company said it is also offering to pay for the e-mails of qualifying groups to be validated by a third party.
We want to make sure that not-for-profits who depend on timely communication with their members get all of the privileges of this powerful medium, said Stiles. "Our announcement of late guarantees that every certified not-for-profit will get the same benefits as private-sector companies that have decided to utilize Goodmail's CertifiedEmail system.
Participating non-profits would not receive Goodmail's services for free, however, but will instead receive AOL's help to get on its Enhanced Whitelist.
AOL has come under fire for a plan announced in January to eliminate the Enhanced Whitelist. Later, it revised the plan to scale back the Enhanced Whitelist program. In its place, AOL plans to implement Goodmail's CertifiedEmail Program, which charges a per-message fee for commercial e-mail senders to gain certain privileges, such as the automatic display of images and hyperlinks.
Those privileges have been available for free to senders who earn placement on AOL's Enhanced Whitelist for good sending behavior, and who maintain very low complaint rates. New features only available through AOL's paid CertifiedEmail program include bypassing certain content and volume filters, adding a "trust symbol" to messages sent by CertifiedEmail senders, and receiving message-level reporting on delivery metrics.
We announce this to make sure that there is no further confusion or question about what not-for-profits would need to do to be able to communicate to AOL members on a level commensurate with large, commercial e-mail providers who opt to use Goodmail's Certified E-mail program," said Stiles. "There will be no requirement, ever, for not-for-profits who deliver e-mail to AOL members to pay for e-mail certification and delivery."
AOL has been investigating solutions for not-for-profit groups for several weeks, but the recent outcry accelerated its plans, according to AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. He said that though opponents were successful only in whipping up confusion, the new free services for nonprofits came in response to criticism.
Graham declined to name which provider or providers might be involved in this program, AOL is in talks with several accreditation providers and said it expects to complete tests of the new service within 30 days. This second offering should be ready for the public within three months, the company said. Goodmail also offers reduced rates to not-for-profits who want to sign up for the CertifiedEmail program, Graham said.
Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, commended AOL's move, calling it a good first step. But she worried about how AOL would determine which companies were nonprofits. She feared that AOL would recognize only those companies actually registered with the government as a nonprofit.
A lot of people we want to protect are not registered, Cohn said. Under this kind of plan, it would leave a whole lot of people, who run big and valuable mailing lists, out in the cold.
It claimed that among others, charities and civic organizing groups with mailing lists would be left with "inferior" Internet service unless they proved willing to pay the "e-mail tax" to AOL, a claim the service provider denies.
There has been a philosophical debate that has been deliberately confused by critics. Their arguments are misguided and erroneous, Graham said. We are taking these steps at this time because of the confusion that has been created in the marketplace.
AOL also vowed to continue to make additional improvements to its regular Whitelist and Enhanced Whitelist, an answer to another charge from the EFF and other protesting groups that AOL stood to gain financially by degrading e-mail for non-paying senders.