MoveOn's "email tax" meme considered harmful.

2006-04-25 18:54

One sees, occasionally, reproductions of a heartfelt, probably sincere, dire warning about the coming Email Tax, in which AOL will soon destroy all good and innocent people by forcing them to pay email. It’s censorship, of course, because it’s backed by secret cabals of Republicans wearing special tinfoil hats which let them know when to falsely report the mail as spam.

Well, no.

Here’s the scoop. The complaint is about Goodmail Systems, who offer “email certification”. It costs money. If you pay the money, your email is certified.

How does this become a “tax”? Well, AOL might give preference to “certified” mailings. So, to become certified, you have to pay. Uncertified? Your mail might get filtered. OH NOE! IT IS TEH EMAIL TAX!!!!

Only it isn’t. First off, regular users would never use, or need, this service. It’s aimed at entities like, say, the American Red Cross, who want very much to certify that their donation requests are really from them. In fact, the anti-phishing aspect is a very significant one. Imagine that you’re Chase Morgan Bank, and you want to email a customer who has, so far this month, gotten over a thousand messages claiming to be from Chase Morgan Bank. (This number is probably not that far off; I’ve gotten hundreds this month alone.) How do you do it? You sign up with some certification company, and you can have your email certified as actually coming from you. The phishers can’t do this for two reasons; one, it would cost money, and two, they can’t prove that they’re really Chase Morgan Bank, because they aren’t.

Enter MoveOn. Now, I’m sympathetic to their original platform of disliking Bush Jr.; I am not fond of him. But when they took their lists of people who opposed Bush, and started mailing them about other stuff, they started being spammers. Today, many of the people on their list did not ask to be there. And that means that MoveOn messages get reported as spam. Not by some mysterious cabal of sinister Republicans; by people who wanted to vote Bush out of office but are sick of getting political spam about everything else.

Things go downhill when you look at MoveOn’s history with this. At one point, Hotmail apparently suggested they sign up with Bonded Sender. “AH-HAH! A SHAKEDOWN!” No, no more than it’s a “shakedown” when someone who gets a ticket a day for bad driving is encouraged to go to driving school.

The fact is, the MoveOn people have list management skills the likes of which we haven’t seen since Sanford Wallace left spam to go into spyware.

The EFF has been on the bandwagon too, and it’s pretty obvious why; for all that the EFF’s position on many issues has been laudable, they are constitutionally unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between governmental censorship of content (“bad”) and sysadmins or users choosing to reject unwanted garbage (“good”).

In the end, that’s the problem here. Goodmail isn’t about content, and it’s not a “tax on email”. It won’t become a tax on email. The people at Goodmail don’t want a tax on email; they want some way for recipients to distinguish between a real message from Paypal, or eBay, or the American Red Cross, and a fake one. And, since the fake ones are scams, the uncertified messages might well get tossed out. If you aren’t a Goodmail customer, then lack of certification isn’t a reason to toss your messages out.

Want to know more about the real story? Here’s some links I found interesting.

One of the founders of Goodmail actually took the time to correspond with me, and sent me these links. These are, of course, “biased”; they represent the opinion of one of the primary participants. They are also, however, the best available evidence about what Goodmail does, intends, or sells.

The impression I get, from talking to people who, unlike MoveOn, are actually involved in some way in maintaining a functional email infrastructure, is that the MoveOn people are either stupid or malicious, and it’s hard to say which. They’ve had this explained, and rather than talk in terms of what is actually happening, they’re sticking with lunatic conspiracy theories. They’ve started brewing some pretty strong kool-aid over there, and reminding me once again why people who all agree with each other should not work in isolation; they end up jumping at shadows and inventing conspiracies.

Here’s the blunt reality: People report their mail as spam because it’s spam. The existence of a system whereby real companies can flag their real communications with their customers to be distinguished from phish attempts is not a tax on email. The MoveOn people need to, well, move on; they need to grow up, start managing their lists responsibly, and stop whining. More importantly, in the short term, they need to stop lying about the “email tax”.

Peter Seebach