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Replies to AOL's email "tax" and some explanations of why it's needed

Replies to AOL's email "tax" and some explanations of why it's needed
Replies to AOL's email "tax" and some explanations of why it's needed

Some very thoughtful replies follow in the order I received them; keep 
reading. Previous Politech message: 

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [Politech] AOL's email "tax" and how it affects small 
mailing lists	[sp]
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 15:17:26 +0530
From: Suresh Ramasubramanian  
Organization: -ENOENT
To: Declan McCullagh  
CC: Mark Saks  
References: <> 

Yup - and as a counterpoint there's this - 
and perhaps better still, 

Mark - one thing you do need to remember is that AOL's filters are fed
by their users marking email as spam.  And they include (for example)
URL filters as well, so that if an email that was sent out to your list
had a URL that AOL's blocking, it might get blocked


1. AOL will typically provide an explanatory URL in the bounce

2. They're not out to ask people running tiny lists to pay. Despite what
the EFF will insist, and despite however many "goodmail is blackmail"
memes they'll try and spread around, it does happen to be true, and the
EFF is way out to lunch on this issue, as they are on most spam related
issues they've bothered to comment on.

Find what bounce you get. Look it up at 
(the bounce you get might likely have a pointer to a page under that
site).  There's an 1-800 number on that site you can use to talk to AOL
staffers as well.  You might want to try it .. just tell them the
specific bounce you're getting, what IP address you're using to send out
that list, etc.

That way, you might be able to get this cleared up rather faster than by
discussing this on politech.


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [Politech] AOL's email "tax" and how it affects small 
mailing lists [sp]
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 07:54:02 -0500
From: Rich Kulawiec  
To: Mark Saks  
CC: Declan McCullagh  
References: <> 

 > Seems like extortion and racketeering to me, but I'm not an attorney.

It's no such thing, of course.

AOL systems are not public property: they're AOL's.  So unless you have
a contract with them for services, they owe you nothing.  They don't
have to let you send email to them, or look at web pages hosted on
their systems, or use their instant message service, or anything else.

They may choose to furnish you with, or deny you those, services entirely
at their whim.   They may choose to furnish/deny those services on alternate
Tuesdays or to requests whose originating IP address ends in a prime number
of anything else they want.  (Yes, those are silly examples, and they're
unlikely to do things that bizarre.  But that choice is up to them.)

But keep in mind: they owe you NOTHING.  They're not even required
to *tell you* what policies they have in place or when they change
them, let alone tailor those policies to your convenience.

Now, like most other ISPs and web sites and DNS servers and mail servers
and so on, they generously furnish you and me and everyone else on the
Internet with many of these services as a courtesy.  Just like I generously
furnish you and Declan and everyone else on the Internet with some services
as a courtesy.  But that courtesy should not be mistaken for either
(a) an obligation to furnish those services (b) an obligation to furnish
those services in a way convenient to _you_ or (c) an obligation to
furnish you with additional/premium services.  No such obligations exist.

This is how the Internet works.  You are only "entitled" to those services
that you've contracted for.  Everything else -- everything beyond the
perimeter of your ISP's network -- is a courtesy.  That courtesy may be
withdrawn at any time for any reason (or no reason) without notice to you.

Now as to this particular policy, my understanding is that it's in
reaction to massive (and I do mean MASSIVE) amounts of abuse directed
at AOL's network, systems and users from external sources.  Of course,
AOL is not required to provide services in the face of abuse, nor are
they require to blindly keep operating those services as if that abuse
didn't exist.  They may take whatever mitigating steps they feel necessary.
(Provided those steps don't generate outbound abuse -- and these don't.
Contrast with Verizon's SMTP callbacks -- part of their very poor and
ill-conceived "anti-spam" methodology -- which actively support spam.)

I don't think much of AOL as a company -- I've never really forgiven
them for the September-that-never-ended -- but I think very highly of
the team that handles their mail operations.  They have done an exemplary
job of handling abuse issues, they participate in the appropriate forums
with their professional peers, and they are responsive to feedback,
advice and criticism.  Those people really are trying to lead by example,
and while I don't always agree with everything they do, I must recognize
that they've achieved a LOT.  For example, the amount of outbound spam
seen from AOL is a trickle.  Contrast with, say, Yahoo or Hotmail, both
of which have been gushing torrents of spam continuously, host thousands
of spammers, and are legendary for a combination of jaw-dropping 
and utter negligence.

So before you start throwing around accusations of federal crimes,
maybe you should re-think your relationship with them.  (Unless you
have a valid contract for services with them, in which case you should
probably get an attorney to evaluate the situation.)

By the way: in practice: I operate quite a few mailing lists.  Have for
many years.  I've had no trouble at all with AOL, and in fact, they've
got a nifty (and free) service called a "feedback loop" that has *helped me*
run those lists more effectively.   I have far more trouble with Verizon,
Comcast, Yahoo, Hotmail, and other ISPs/services whose mail operations
are run, apparently, by chimpanzees on crack.

In other words: you're aiming at the wrong target.  AOL are, in this
case, The Good Guys.  If you're unhappy that they're contemplating policies
that might mean less or slower free services for you, then don't blame
them: they've got better things to do than think stuff like this up,
and go through all of the work that it takes to implement it.  Blame the
OTHER ISPs/services out there whose miserable failure to control abuse
outbound from their systems/networks is the root cause of the problem.


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: [Politech] AOL's email "tax" and how it affects small 
mailing lists[sp]
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 06:56:29 -0600
From: John K. Taber  
Organization: none
To: 'Declan McCullagh'  

Declan, H-Net has also been harmed by AOL's email tax. H-Net is a bunch
of scholarly social science email lists. Its lists are being barred by
AOL's spam guard. But, H-Net is having a hell of a time being taken off
the spam list.

See for H-Net's warning to its mailing list 

I didn't realize it until this "email tax" post, but it's looking more
and more like a shakedown. It's not just small mailing lists being
affected, but mailing lists generally.


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [Politech] AOL's email "tax" and how it affects small 
mailing lists [sp]
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 07:32:09 -0800
From: Bill Ries-Knight  
To: Declan McCullagh , 
References: <> 

On 1/24/07, Declan McCullagh  wrote: 
 > Here's a discussion we had last February:

 > -------- Original Message --------
 > Subject: Is AOL engaged in extortion?

 > Declan--
 > Don't know if this is appropriate for Politech, but here it is:
 > I have not seen this discussed much, but I run a small community mailing
 > list - only about 200 recipients, 40 on AOL -and AOL has dubbed me as a
 > spammer, even though the only people I send to on AOL are those who 
want to
 > get the community announcements I send. Apparently this is a common
 > problem.
 > While the solution is for those recipients to get another email, for some
 > strange reason they seem reluctant to do so. But that is another issue.
> Then I found the website where 500 
organizations and
 > individuals are protesting AOL's new email "tax." It seems that if 
you pay
 > them enough money, they will let you bypass their spam filters. In other
 > words, their subscribers are prevented from getting the mail they 
want, but
 > those who are willing to pay can spam them.
 > Seems like extortion and racketeering to me, but I'm not an attorney.
 > Anyone
 > here think they might be prosecuted under the R.I.C.O. statutes??  Does
 > anyone know anything further on this? Maybe it just needs to have the 
 > of day shed on it on some national TV show to embarrass them enough.

I just looked over the responses to the Goodmail CertifiedEmail
program in use at AOL with google.  I found very little overall noise
about problems.

What I did notice was the approach AOL is taking. They are
differentiating the email into tiers in a sense, but they are
maintaining the whitelist.  It is of far more interest on my side to
know the good/bad results of acceptance to the whitelist by normal
small list mailers such as hobby groups and similar special interest
groups.  I differentiate the small users such as the originator of
this thread with shorter email lists from large groups like this
AFL-CIO and regional humane societies.  Are they actually able to
navigate the whitelist hurdles and get ok'd for delivery to AOL
recipients?  If it happens with regularity and relative ease, as
indications from AOL's rules say it should be, then it looks like a
decent and acceptable system.

Here are the AOL whitelist page links. 

When I look over the whitelist_guides page I see good common sense
stuff with one exception..

"An organization's mail servers must send a minimum of 100 emails per
month to maintain whitelist status."

It is not made clear if they refer to "on hundred emails per month" or
"one hundred emails per month **to AOL addresses**"  If they are
blocking a group with as few as 40 AOL addresses and not allowing them
on the whitelist the system is definitely broken.

Don't get me wrong, I don't like the idea of "use an uber-restrictive
email system" from a freedom standpoint, but the only cost I see is a
one-time non-refundable accreditation fee of $399.00.  I see nothing
about continued fees which means it is not a tax and there is no
per-email cost.  Rather it seems to be a way for AOL to provide
fairness to the AOL community. 

My opinion about this matter.

No, AOL is not engaged in extortion.

We need to look at this issue with open eyes and realize it is a
sensible and restrictive email system.  I opened a gmail account and
it used it one time.  In one week I received 600 spams, in two weeks
it has almost doubled.  Obviously it was used with the wrong people,
but it is easy for common folks to make a mistake, and AOL users, as a
group, are typically much less savvy about the Internet and hazards
than the typical politechbot subscriber.  They can use the shielding.
Bill Ries-Knight
Stockton, CA

Respect the process, Vote.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [Politech] AOL's email "tax" and how it affects small 
mailing lists [sp]
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 10:25:35 -0700
From: Mark Saks  
To: Rich Kulawiec  
References: <> <> 

Thanks for your comments, Rich. I seem to have missed the conversation and
will look in the archives that Declan pointed out. (Thanks Declan.)

Here's some more details, anecdotes, etc., since you took the trouble to
respond to me.

I simply send out community mail from an opt in (manual) list to only 38 
users on my list of about 200, using Outlook to send and Access to maintain
the database. Maybe up to 4 or 5 mails per day, sometimes none. Hardly
massive. The Lion's Club here has the same problem. They solve it by 
their mail in batches of 5. I do not know why that works, except they
probably don't send the volume that I do, which still isn't much. Again,
hardly massive. I am dealing with barely computer literate folks in some
cases so joining a formal online list is out of the question and likely to
cause havoc if I tried Lyris or similar double opt-in.

AOL's "contract" is with the AOL users to get their mail that **they 
wish to
get.** Implied usability for a fundamental purpose. They could easily(?)
direct such mail to users spam folders and let them have a whitelist. But
they do not. The error screen I am referred to tell me to tell my ISP to
contact them. Hmmm. Well I did, and the ISP chose to ignore it. I wonder 
(read ironically.) $0.0025 per email may not seem like much, but over the
course of a year I might send enough mail to cost about $100. 20 pieces per
week x 38 AOLers x 52 weeks x 0.0025 = $98.80. I guess the Goodmail 
motto is
no good deed goes unpunished. Not a huge amount to be sure, but I refuse to
give in to extortion, which is what it is, from my perspective. "'Pay us or
we won't less your mail pass,' said the troll at the gate."

I have just admonished everyone on AOL on my list to get another email.
Apparently 500 or more other organizations and individuals are pissed. See The actual list is very interesting. 

Me, I just continue to call it AO-HELL (makes me feel better and more
accurate) and tell people that if they want to be sure they get all their
mail, to use another address. I have never subscribed to them because of 
their policies. I had nothing but problems with them when directing a
distance education program due to their proxy servers and AOL kicking
students off line (when then used dialup) while taking an exam. We found
workarounds. No other service caused as much grief to so many people, so I
may be slightly biased due to tons of bad experiences.

One of the workarounds is even funny: we found that if we got a student to
go to a commerce area and begin to make a purchase, like a pair of socks in
Sporting Goods, and then sign in to the distance learning site in another
window, that AO-HELL would never disconnect them! Then they cancelled the
purchase when they finished their exam.

I understand the choice is up to them, but if AT&T did the same thing, they
would be accused of all kinds of federal crimes. In fact they were and were
broken up. Frankly my policy is to tell my AOL users that I will 
continue to
send to them at their AOL address, but if they do not get the mail they
contracted to get, that they complain to AOL and not me. Then get another
address. I solved my personal issue by merely posting all the announcements
I send on a website and then tell AOLers on my list that if they do not get
any mail from me for a week, then they should look on the website I set up.

I really do appreciate your perspective and thank you for the time you took
to write. I also understand that AOL's attempt to solve one problem 
seems to
have had unintended (I am being kind here) consequences that they are not
addressing, even though it would take less effort than support hours spent
with individual subscribers tinkering with their spam settings. It is 
cruel, because the users spam settings never get to see the mail blocked at
the gateway.  I prefer the EFF approach.

Apparently at least 500 other entities are experiencing the same problems
with AOL as I am. If only 38 copies trigger their spam filters, then I find
AOL unusable. I continue to refer to their spam level as "set to 
I have had no problems with them in the past with this as you describe, but
this began about a year ago. The internet is a public accommodation paid 
by taxpayer dollars, as you know - originally Milnet. It is on this that I
base my hypothesis. If AOL set up their own web, then I have no problem.

We can agree to disagree. I still thought it was something interesting for
Politech to bounce around. I see that I missed the discussion last 
I think the problem has gotten worse as more people use email to actually
communicate rather than send jokes and hoaxes.

Thanks again for your perspective. I will pass it along to 38 people who do
not understand why they cannot get their email. I will tell them that AOL
can do whatever they want with impunity and that the users remedy is to
circumvent AOL. Wait until the grace given by Goodmail to non-profit groups
is revoked. Either Goodmail and AOL will get very rich or they will lose

Mark Saks 

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [Politech] AOL's email "tax" and how it affects small 
mailing lists [sp]
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 16:49:38 -0500 (EST)
From: John L  
To: Declan McCullagh  
References: <> 

Hi.  Last year's email tax argument was short on facts and long on
disingenuous hyperbole, and I'm dismayed to see that little has changed in
the interim.

I know the people who run AOL's e-mail system pretty well, and I can
assure you that their filters are driven by user complaints.  If you send
from a fixed source and a lot of people hit the spam button on your mail,
you'll get filtered.  If they don't, you won't.  They can't tell one list
from another, so it's the complaint rate for all mail sent from a single
source, which in this case I presume is, that counts.

Community and non-profit lists are chronically badly managed.  They're
sloppy about how they add people, they're sloppy about removing people who
ask to be taken off, and they rarely look at bounces to prune dead
addresses.  All three of those will get you in trouble not just with AOL,
but with any ISP that looks at complaint rates.  When this issue came up
last year, a committee of the California state senate had a hearing to
which I was invited along with a lot of other people.  One of the founders
of MoveOn spoke, and it was abundantly clear that her project had grown
beyond her wildest dreams, and she simply had no idea what is involved in
managing mailing lists with millions of members.  "We're nice so it's not
spam" just doesn't cut it.

AOL has a very nice feedback loop service which anyone who sends from
fixed IP addresses can set up at no charge.  Once you set it up, you'll
get a copy of every message of yours that provokes a spam complaint so you
can take the complainers off the list.  A lot of times it turns out that
it's people who subscribed, changed their mind, and think that the spam
button is how you unsubscribe.  That's annoying, but you have to deal with

Fixing your list management may not be as much fun as complaining about
imagined shakedowns, but it works a lot better.

Politech mailing list
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