Dyson on Goodmail

Goodmail is a plan that will allow companies to pay a fee to bypass AOL’s junk e-mail filters, thus guaranteeing the delivery of messages. EPIC hasn’t taken a formal position on Goodmail yet, while many other groups have started a campaign against it.

And now the spin has begun. Esther Dyson has penned an oped for the New York Times that is filled with bogus rhetorical tricks and faulty assumptions. When the quality of debate deteriorates to this level, meaningful discourse ends.

Allow me to critique aspects of her argument without even discussing the merits of Goodmail. It’s so easy to do, in part because these arguments are part of a standard playbook that industry lobbyists employ to defeat consumer protection regulation.

A COMPANY called Goodmail Systems thinks it has come up with a potential (and partial) solution to the problem of spam and fraud on the Internet. According to Goodmail, market forces are the answer, rather than the kinds of ineffective regulations that have so far failed to solve the problems.

What Goodmail is proposing is a sort of FedEx for e-mail. For a penny or less per message, the sender gets guaranteed delivery for mail and the promise that it will stand out in the user’s mailbox. The recipient pays nothing. (Goodmail, of which I am not an investor, has tested its system with the participation of a few companies, including this newspaper.)

Ineffective regulations? Why are those regulations ineffective? The spam lobby, which includes many mainstream companies, did everything possible to make the CAN-SPAM Act next to useless. Many jokingly refer to the law as the “I-CAN-SPAM” Act. CAN-SPAM preempted California’s opt-in law that would have allowed consumers to take spammers to court. So, Dyson is not critiquing the regulatory scheme that consumer advocates wanted, she’s deriding the very system designed by spammers. Dyson is engaging in a cheap rhetorical trick–she attacks a straw man.

Internet service providers like America Online, which receive and process mail in bulk, can share in Goodmail’s revenue if they want, as long as they promise to pass the mail to their customers without filtering it for spam. The payment encourages AOL to adopt the service and to display a “certified e-mail” icon to users on each “stamped” message, indicating that the message is wanted and safe.

Wanted and safe? This is classic question begging. Just who believes that these messages are wanted?

In the short run, AOL and others will serve as the recipients’ proxies. If they don’t do a good job of ensuring that customers get the mail they want, even from nonpaying senders, they will lose their customers. And in the long run, recipients will be able to use services like Goodmail to set their own prices for receiving mail.

Perhaps Dyson has never tried to cancel an AOL account. It was so hard at one point that New York Attorney General Spitzer had to intervene!

What shocks me most about the opposition to Goodmail is that people who claim to believe in the free and open Internet, with its welcome attitude to innovation, want to shut down an idea. That’s wrong.

Snore. Groups like EFF are not against innovation or ideas. That is a cheap shot.

Goodmail isn’t good because it’s new, but neither is it bad because it’s new. If it’s a good model, it will succeed and improve over time. If it’s a bad model, it will fail. Why not let the customers decide?

Many present consumer choice as if it’s as simple as choosing between brands of gum at a convenience store. The reality is that changing ISPs is inconvenient, especially when you have broadband, a service contract, or when you are wedded to your e-mail address. And less sophisticated consumers won’t pay attention to the issue at all or even realize that this debate is taking place. Consumers don’t sit around thinking about whether a certain business has adopted a certain obscure policy or not!

These policy debates are complex. We should not be satisfied by people who simply invoke the terms “choice,” “market,” and “competition” in favor of their approach.

Finally, replace “Goodmail” with “Truste” in this oped, and you’ll find similar Pollyannaish appeal from Dyson from the 1990s. Then, she argued that a trust mark would differentiate web sites, leading to competition in privacy policies. Then, as now, simplistic appeals to competition justified a self-regulatory approach and scuttled privacy laws that would have given people real rights. We all know how Truste turned out. Fool us once…