Charging for Guaranteed Spam: Better Than It Sounds?

Andrew Jaquith
Andrew Jaquith ∙ Managing Director, Markerbench
3 min read ∙ February 12, 2006

Much ink has been spilled over the recent AOL and Yahoo announcements that they will charge marketers five cents per e-mail to guarantee delivery of their mail, thus bypassing their spam filters.

Lots of people been rendered spitting mad by the plan. Three things seem obvious to me about how and why these plans came about:

  • The ahem, marketing companies are clearly frustrated by the fact that their mail is getting blocked more and more often. If you believe the numbers from MessageLabs and others, spam is now 80-85% of all Internet e-mail.
  • The existing spam filters of Yahoo and AOL are clearly annoying some of their most-phished customers (read: banks) by blocking their legitimate communications
  • AOL and Yahoo clearly think that can make a buck on this

I can’t stand spam in any form. It’s why I switched my private e-mail from these guys to another provider. I used to get so many e-mails containing viruses, worms, trojan horses and other nasties that I almost longed for the simple “would you like some V1@grA?” type. Clearly, the deluge of spam is largely being fueled by the botnet boom, and the malware-laden variety is crushing the stuff that’s merely solicitous.

And there’s the rub. There are genuine businesses out there, like banks, who want to communicate with their customers. And there are other sorts of businesses who simply want to bombard us with come-ons for lots of stuff we don’t need and didn’t ask for. Yahoo and AOL clearly don’t think it’s worthwhile to try to distinguish between the two, so it’s easiest to simply say: make ’em all pay.

That’s just fine with me. The larger banks can clearly afford to pay, while the Spanish-fly-by-night yahoos (oops) will only do so if they think the risk/return is worth it. As for the latter type, I’m happy to let AOL and Yahoo drain their marketing budgets dry.

But of course, as a consumer I still don’t want to get this stuff. Therefore, if AOL and Yahoo are going to make an unholy pact with Viagra-pedding lümpenmarketers so that they can cram their spam in our pliant craws, then it seems to me that the consumers whose craws are being crammed ought to have some right of redress. Specifically:

Marketers who pay Yahoo and AOL to guarantee delivery of their spam must also offer a verifiable opt-out provision.

And here’s the good news: it seems that the proposed system does exactly that. The system AOL and Yahoo will be using claims to offer a “certified unsubscribe” feature, as well as a spammer-authentication system. This, I think, is the missing headline from this whole story. Even if there’s more spam (ugh), at least you know whose throat you can choke. You can tell them to go away and feel pretty confident that they will. And you can feel all warm inside knowing that they are slowly and assuredly going broke.

That said, there are going to be plenty of ways to game the system. So I guess I’m glad I’m not a Yahoo or AOL subscriber.