AOL's and Yahoo's spam filters: Whom do they serve?

New York (NY) - As the New York Times broke this morning, Yahoo and AOL are planning to impose a sort of "postage fee" on mail senders who seek to bypass the companies' spam filters. Senders who intend to reach mass audience can only send mail to AOL- or Yahoo-based addresses, says the Times, when they are willing to pay between 0.25¢ and 1¢ ($0.01) per message, and even then may only send to a select number of subscribers who have opted to receive advertising in their inboxes - or, perhaps more accurately, who have not opted not to receive it.

But even as the Times report itself implicitly acknowledged, the companies' moves are being met with some skepticism, especially with regard to whether their marketing of these plans is but a clever twist on what would otherwise be construed as a bulk mailing service. This afternoon, the world's blogs are ripe with commentary in response to the report.

Among the criminal defense attorneys who post to the Denver-based TalkLeft site is one whose handle is "Last Night in Little Rock," who posts this response:

Makes me wonder: Did they design spamfilters just to make it possible for mass marketers to buy their way around them?...AOL's spamfilter is a part of its program. Then it sells the key to get around it. Capitalism and Internet life being what it is, somebody will write a program for sale that will take out AOL's and Yahoo!'s approved spam-for-sale.

Steve Rubel, a senior vice president at a New York City PR firm, generated quite a bit of traffic today with this comment:

That's all folks. The door has officially closed on email marketing. Maybe this will drive more companies to start up opt-in RSS feeds and blogs that facilitate dialogue.

The implication being, if companies want to reach people, they're going to have to find new and more direct tools to accomplish this. RSS may be one way to do that. In this age of instantaneous invention cycles, Web tools developer Raj Kumar Dash came up with the notion that RSS could be leveraged to create a kind of virtual e-mail address system, where no one's e-mail address is actually public, though any holder of a virtual address can opt to receive messages from approved sources, perhaps using a public key system similar to PKI:

Here's what I've sketched out so far.  Registered members would be able to both receive and send email via this future browser-based system, and subscribe to RSS and Atom web feeds. What's more, these member email addresses wouldn't actually exist. They'd be virtual...All mail from outside of the domain would go to a single real catch-all address.

The way Raj has it all sketched out, it sounds as if he'd actually been considering such a project long before the Times article was published. But as Brian Oberkirch, a developer of blogging tools, writes to his own blog, the key to public acceptance of RSS won't be whether those doing the outreach will be enabled to contact us, but whether we on the receiving end have tools powerful enough to filter out the wheat from the chaff, as it were, with this comment:

The story this year is not going to be about how you can efficiently blast your message out to millions, but about how new tools will enable us to more powerfully overhear the conversations that matter to us. The pressure will be on marketers to be that much more savvy, that much better at listening, and that much more responsive as comments, posts, image links and tags swirl around them. That is to say: it's more power to the people. Our filters will get smarter, and our conversations will likewise. Deal with it.

Once again, worlds are created and destroyed with the simple expression of an idea. One wonders how much attention Yahoo and AOL are paying to all of this.