Many of us have been following the AOL/Yahoo! Goodmail press lately. While the deal was initially announced back in October last year, for some reason the PR engines only began to get going in February 2006. What sparked the sudden change in direction?
While I can’t necessarily answer that question completely, I believe it was due to some miscommunication and misunderstanding for which AOL may have even been partly to blame. And for our part, we tried to set the record straight and emphasize that:
1. Goodmail is an optional program for mailers who are interested in participating.
2. Goodmail is AOL’s third whitelist (to date) with the possibility for more.
3. AOL’s other two whitelists (“AOL Whitelist” and “AOL Enhanced Whitelist”) are not going away.
Some Frequently Asked Questions about Goodmail, and AOLÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Mail Policies, etcÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
1. So, what is Goodmail?
At its most basic level it is a whitelist of trusted senders. It is similar to many other whitelists on the Internet including some commercial ones like Bonded Sender (owned by ReturnPath) and Habeas. Commercial whitelists for which the sender must pay to be on the list are not new. Also not new is a large ISP using these lists to help lower false positive rates from their spam filters and/or flag mail as having a higher level of trust. Microsoft’s Hotmail/MSN mail system uses the Bonded Sender and Habeas whitelists today for these very purposes.
2. If there are whitelists, are there also blacklists?
Yes, of course. In fact many ISPs around the world use publicly and privately managed lists of “bad senders” called blacklists to fight spam. Spam Haus, Spam Cop (owned by IronPort), and the old Mail Abuse Prevention System MAPS now owned by Trend Micro, are just a few commercial products that customers must pay to use. So just like commercial whitelists, there are also commercial blacklists. By the way, many marketers, political groups, and other organizations have been vehemently against blacklists as well, as they fear that these lists may unfairly block their legitimate mail. Now, if everyone is opposed to both whitelists and blacklists, what tools, exactly, are ISPÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s left with to fight spam and phishing???
3. OK, so why does AOL need whitelists and blacklists then?
In the anti-spam world, a whitelist is a mechanism used to ensure that legitimate mail can bypass imperfect spam filters – especially when the legitimate mail has characteristics that the filters could misconstrue as spam. A simple example of this could be a Bayesian/content filter trained to detect pornographic content which could mistake some legitimate, confirmed opt-in, adult oriented mailing list as spam. Whitelists are useful because, as everyone knows, spam filtering is not a perfect science. The plain reality of the world is that many types of mail can have characteristics that are similar enough to spam’s characteristics that machines cannot always differentiate with 100% accuracy. In fact, human beings have trouble differentiating in a lot of cases — especially when it comes to “phish” emails which are created specifically to look exactly like legitimate mail (from Citibank, Ebay, etc). And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s where Ã¢â‚¬â€œ you guessed it Ã¢â‚¬â€œ GoodmailÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s CertifiedEmail program kicks in for senders and consumers.
4. What happens to AOL’s whitelists once Goodmail is launched?
Most every ISP uses whitelists of one sort or another. AOL has two whitelists which we have offered for many, many years. They have always been free. They will always be free. The way we control who gets on and stays on these special lists is based on the reputation of the sender –how many bounces, complaints (report spams), etc does one mailer have compared to another…essentially, do our members like the mail or do they complain about it – a very democratic approach! Other ISPs have various flavors of the same thing. As mentioned above, Hotmail/MSN uses a third party commercial whitelist called Bonded Sender. Google/Gmail does not say they have a whitelist specifically, but in their bulk mail policy page they do make many suggestions for how mailers can improve their chances of avoiding the dreadful bulk folder. Most of these suggestions seem to center on reputation which is what AOL uses for our two free whitelists. Yahoo! has a page with similar suggestions and a form for their version of whitelisting.
5. What is the difference between the whitelists and why does AOL see the need for Goodmail?
Our main, regular whitelist is open to anyone who can pass our sniff test of being a legitimate organization. AOL cannot possibly run background checks on every single whitelist request. As such, we use certain “does it smell right” tests to ensure people getting onto our basic whitelist have a good chance of not being spammers. Once on the list, we govern their ongoing whitelist status through member and automated feedback of the organization’s performance/reputation. We also offer organizations the ability to get feedback on their performance directly from AOL Ã¢â‚¬â€œ for free! We were the first (yep, we invented feedback loops and the ARF technical protocol) and still are just about the only ISP in the world that allows mailers to self-monitor their performance. The Whitelist allows organizations to bypass some of our spam controls and rate limits – but not all.
The Enhanced Whitelist (EWL) is a self-regulating system, such that, if you have been on our regular whitelist for a long period of time and have performed very well (good reputation), we will promote your organization to the EWL. The EWL has two additional benefits over the normal whitelist. It will deliver mail to the inbox and it will show URL links and Images by default. Of course individual member preferences will trump this, but since most members do not change the defaults, the EWL tends to be an advantage to the best senders with the best reputations.
Goodmail will essentially become the third AOL whitelist and it provides essentially the same features as the EWL. But it adds some enhancements that mailers (and our members!) have been asking AOL to provide for years! The additional features include a special symbol/icon/UI chrome designating the mail as from a trusted sender. Most of the organizations requesting this feature are ones that have been hit hard by phishing email scams, including charities (like the American Red Cross), financial institutions, and e-commerce companies. The other feature is confirmation of delivery. In this case organizations were interested in a better way to measure their delivery rates to their customers as opposed to the indirect methods available within SMTP or by using image tracking beacons. That improves their future delivery rates, encourages them to clean up their lists even more and Ã¢â‚¬â€œ guess who benefits Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the email recipients of the world.
6. Wait a second Ã¢â‚¬â€œ everyone else has a free whitelist – just like AOL – but no one else of the size and importance of AOL is going to implement a system like Certified EmailÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Ëœpay-to-playÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ scheme. IsnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t this right?
Totally wrong. Unlike Microsoft, AOL has and will continue to offer a free, non-fee based approach for getting bulk email delivered at AOL. AOL has a free whitelist, with totally transparent policies (see http://postmaster.aol.com), and we are now offering up an optional, voluntary service on top of it. In many ways, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re catching up to what others have implemented on the internet for almost two years Ã¢â‚¬â€œ AOL is not the force behind a new concept. With Microsoft, mail senders must pay in order to get the same whitelist status that AOL provides for FREE. Yahoo! also has a whitelist, but they don’t charge for it.
Microsoft has entered into two partnerships with GoodmailÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s competitors concerning email authentication.
- First, in May 2004, Microsoft announced an agreement (http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2004/may04/05-05IronportPR.mspx) with IronPortÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Bonded Sender program (Bonded Sender is now owned by ReturnPath).
- Second, in June 2005, Microsoft announced a similar agreement with Habeas (http://www.habeas.com/en-US/press/060905.php).
In the case of Bonded Sender, mailers pay Return Path/Bonded Sender an accreditation fee, the same as with Goodmail. In addition, they post a bond which is debited based upon the number of abuse reports. With Habeas, mailers pay an accreditation fee, again like Goodmail, and then pay for “delivery services” which include things like abuse mitigation, copy evaluation and ISP interactions. Those fees are dependent upon volume of email.
7. Why all the fuss and controversy? What is new here?
Nothing is new, based on what AOL and Yahoo! have already previously announced in October 2005. There was some confusion weeks ago about AOLÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s current whitelist and enhanced whitelist products, for which we are to blame. The point is, as we have been stating, both will remain to serve exactly the same purpose they serve today. We are simply nearing the implementation phase of the Certified Email service, and the naysayers on the fringe of the internet have simply seized on the issue that they think will net them some additional fundraising dollars on the web, exclusively based on inaccuracies and twisted half-truths. Not only is this unfair, but it does a disservice to online consumers who have repeatedly told us they want an additional weapon to use against the constant barrage of very complex schemes that show up in their email inbox Ã¢â‚¬â€œ taking up their time and confusing them.
8. AOL is just out to make money on this right? I mean, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the real reason why you want to move everyone to the Goodmail solution.
The framework for the Goodmail CertifiedEmail program has always involved a revenue share component, and this was made clear last Fall when the partnership was first announced. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a necessary part of the equation, because AOL will utilize the modest and incremental revenue derived to support our ongoing antispam and anitphishing efforts and enhance our email product development. Also, the fee scale for emailers increases the quality of the email process because companies have a financial stake in making the process work and work well. It also helps to augment the good email for consumers and weed-out the possibility of unwanted email in inboxes. And, an important point, non-profits who want or choose to participate in the Goodmail program Ã¢â‚¬â€œ like the American Red Cross has decided to do Ã¢â‚¬â€œ will be able to take advantage of vastly reduced rates set by Goodmail. This was a critical point AOL insisted on as we approached last FallÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s partnership announcement.
Several organizations have complained about the Goodmail program, including Goodmail’s rivals in this competitive space.
Readers may find it interesting to read some of the recent critical articles penned by Goodmail’s competitors which helped spark the PR upheaval:
Even more recently some political groups have been organized to protest this product. Unfortunately their understanding of the program is either not 100% or they are interested in trying to spread partial information and fear.
1. Goodmail can not be viewed as a tax. Like death, taxes are unavoidable. Goodmail is optional and completely avoidable!
2. Charities, small businesses, and civic organizations will not be left with a lower class of email service. AOL has a duty to deliver mail our members want and if we do not, we always hear about it! I find it interesting to note that we deliver the mail these political groups send today using technology/whitelists we have said will not be changing. So how is the introduction of a new option/whitelist going to change the status quo?
3. Goodmail is an optional service. It provides additional benefits. No one will be forced to use it.
AOL will always have state of the art spam controls. Without them we would have unhappy members. There are also natural controls in place to prevent AOL from “going crazy charging” for mail. Edwin Aoki made a reasonable argument to this effect in his blog:
“If AOL and AIM users really couldn’t get the messages that they wanted from their family, friends, and community mailing lists, then those users really should go somewhere else (and we really would deserve the kind of press we’re getting now). As more and more people did that, the ability of Goodmail (and therefore AOL) to collect a fee based on the mailboxes they deliver to, would decline. If we were intending to turn this into a money making opportunity, we’d have to then either raise the rates, which would disuade more and more mailers from using it, or we’d have to tighten the filters further in order to try to divert more traffic to Goodmail, increasing the cycle. That’s simply not going to happen. “
My hope is that sanity prevails. This is, of course, an experiment as is any new technology. Whether Goodmail is successful in the end or not will be determined by our members (who vote with their pocket book everyday!) and the free market economy.