AOL, advocacy groups at odds over Goodmail

NEW YORK: AOL and advocacy groups are increasing communications efforts as they go head to head over AOL's Goodmail certified e-mail push, which opponents dub an "e-mail tax."

NEW YORK: AOL and advocacy groups are increasing communications efforts as they go head to head over AOL's Goodmail certified e-mail push, which opponents dub an "e-mail tax."

Advocacy groups, including the Gun Owners of America (GOA), MoveOn.org, the Association of Cancer Online Resources, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), assert that the two-tiered system will separate large corporations, which can theoretically afford to pay a fee per e-mail, from smaller organizations that cannot. AOL will therefore lose touch with constituents, claim the groups, because it will neglect "non-preferred" customers.

AOL asserts that the certified e-mail system is voluntary and service will not change at all for organizations that don't use the system. According to the company, the fee-for-use Goodmail product verifies mail sources, much like certified mail. But consumers will also be able to opt out of receiving e-mails from Goodmail-using companies.

Both sides are using their infrastructural heft to communicate their arguments to constituents and the media, while throwing accusations at each other.

The groups opposed held a conference call last Tuesday where they enumerated their concerns. Fenton Communications has led the consortium's PR efforts, on behalf of client EFF.

"It raises the issue of why people can't accept 'yes' for an answer," said John Buckley, AOL's EVP of corporate communications, referring to AOL's claim that service won't change for non-participating groups. "There's a sort of willful desire [for the groups] to not get the message."

Advocacy groups claim AOL's message is misleading. "AOL has either operated with extreme disingenuousness or naiveté of the real consequence of their e-mail tax," said Adam Green, MoveOn. org civic communications director. "Our main goal is to prove that regular people can make a difference and push back."

While acrimony already existed, a comment from Nicolas Graham, AOL corporate communications VP, exacerbated matters.

"There is no substantive news here just because some disparate groups of advocates have come together for an event reminiscent of the bar scene in the first Star Wars," Graham told the AP, which angered the consortium.

"We must take a higher tone," conceded Buckley, "even when there is frustration in dealing with these groups."

AOL is seeking to correct what it calls misinformation with a three-fold strategy: communicating to the media, reaching out to the critical groups, and communicating to AOL users directly. But the consortium is likewise engaged in the same strategy, with Green saying over 400 news stories have run from that conference call.

But Buckley counters, "We operate on the principle that good facts drive out bad facts. Coverage of that protest provides us with the opportunity to walk people through what the facts are."

By press time, nearly 6,000 people had signed the consortium's open letter at dearaol.com, a response Green said stemmed solely from press coverage. He said he expects more signatures when the various groups, which he said represented 15 million members, send direct e-mails to their members. Green added that the organizations were trying to get 500 groups to join the consortium.

"Our members will likely have a very negative reaction," said Larry Pratt, GOA executive director, at the conference call. "It will probably result in very few gun owners being AOL customers."

Buckley said AOL hasn't seen a spike in customer questions, and that, before it launches, AOL will send information on Goodmail to its 70 million e-mail accounts.

"Our membership needs to understand exactly what we are and are not doing," he said.

Buckley added that AOL spoke with MoveOn and others last month, but the meeting didn't change anyone's stance. 

Last Friday, AOL made an announcement that it would offer non-profits new, free options to ensure their e-mails "be delivered on comparable terms to commercial email."

The company said that while not called "certified," e-mails from organizations that qualify for the "enhanced white list" will be treated the same way as "certified" mail.

Buckley said this announcement was intended to end any confusion on the "tax" situation.

 

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