It's been a couple of years now that many of the top Internet companies have been battling spam, phishing scams, and other forms of annoying, even nefarious, Internet behavior. Monday, Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) AOL and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , both major providers of email services, are gearing up to try a new tactic -- giving companies the option of paying a small fee to, in effect, "certify" their email deliveries.
This new plan will ensure that senders' emails won't get sucked into aggressive spam filters and will be delivered straight to recipients' inboxes. These guaranteed email deliveries will cost companies between 1/4 cent and a penny per email. The emails will include a seal of legitimacy (a nail in the coffin for phishing scams, which claim to be -- often very convincingly -- legitimate businesses), and companies that sign up will pledge that they will send emails only to recipients who signed up for them.
Spam, as well as phishing scams, are no joke to major Internet email providers like AOL, Yahoo!, Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Hotmail, and Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Gmail. For years now, consumers have grown fatigued by such encroachments on their inboxes, as the sheer volume of the come-ons degrades the Internet experience (not to mention the content). Nearly a year ago, I reported on some data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. While people were accepting spam as a part of Internet life, more than half the surveyed folks said that their trust of email was undermined by it, and 67% of them felt spam made their lives "unpleasant or annoying."
The plan is aimed at marketers, companies that send massive quantities of legitimate email. Most of us have different ideas of what an annoying ad-related email might be -- for example, I personally appreciate the advertising emails I get from legitimate retailers like Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) or Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) that alert me to products I might be interested in. And indeed, those are the emails I have agreed to get. I don't feel the same about penny stock-shilling emails, prescription drug peddling, and so forth.
I can see the points many critics are trying to make, that this is just one more step toward the creation of an Internet that's no longer the cheap (mostly free) mode of communication that most of us have become accustomed to. I also know that sometimes you've got to pay for quality and peace of mind. (Most of us also know that on the Internet, "free" often translates into "free-for-all.") On the other hand, it most certainly won't stop spammers from spamming. And although some critics are saying a plan like this penalizes the "good guys," well, let's face it. One of the existential questions about the Internet that's been asked since its inception has been what should be free.
For many companies, the plan may be the smartest way to make users feel secure. Think of the phishing scams that likely make some companies' email blasts much less effective when users have doubts as to whether the mails are really from the businesses in question.
Despite the uproar, the new plan from Yahoo! and AOL is an optional one, and companies can choose to reject it. What will be interesting is whether consumers will come to expect such proof of legitimacy. If that comes to pass, many major Internet marketers will just have to accept the fact that a marketing channel that once had negligible cost will now cost more if they're to foster goodwill. Maybe that will just be the price of effective advertising, and that's an element many investors whose companies deal in email blasts will have to keep an eye on.
Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.