THE FUTURE OF EMAIL?….From the New York Times today:

America Online and Yahoo, two of the world’s largest providers of e-mail accounts, are about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered.

….AOL and Yahoo will still accept e-mail from senders who have not paid, but the paid messages will be given special treatment. On AOL, for example, they will go straight to users’ main mailboxes, and will not have to pass the gantlet of spam filters that could divert them to a junk-mail folder or strip them of images and Web links.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer isn’t an easy one.

AOL and Yahoo actually announced this program several months ago. It’s an alliance with Goodmail Systems and its operation is pretty simple: First, companies sign up with Goodmail, which makes sure the company is a legitimate enterprise that has agreed to follow a set of good conduct rules. Goodmail then embeds a cryptographically-secure token in all the company’s email that tells AOL/Yahoo (and the recipient of the email) that the message is a genuine one.

The downside, of course, is that if you don’t pay for this service, then you’re running a risk that your email will get sucked into AOL’s spam filters and never delivered. The potential for abuse is pretty obvious: pay up or risk email oblivion.

On the other hand, I never even look at email from my bank or from PayPal, even if it gets through my spam filters. This means that neither of these companies has a way of communicating with me via email. This is a problem that really does beg for a solution of some kind, and Goodmail just might be it.

On the third hand, this may also turn out to be yet another front in the “network neutrality” war. Will everyone have equal access to the internet in the future, or will the rich and powerful get preferred treatment in the form of faster downloads, quicker connections, and fewer delays, while the rest of us plod along in increasing frustration? Stay tuned.

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