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07 Apr 2006
On Monday the 3rd, California state Senator Dean Flores held a hearing of the E-Commerce, Wireless Technology, and Consumer Driven Programming committee grandly titled AOL: You Have Certified Mail, Will Paid E-mail Lead to Separate, Unequal Systems or is it the Foolproof Answer to Spam?. The senator's office said they were very eager to have me there, to the extent they offered to fly me out from New York, so since I happened to be on the way home from ICANN in New Zealand that weekend, I took a detour through Sacramento. Sen. Florez conducted the hearing, with Sens. Escutia and Torlakson sitting in briefly. Unfortunately, Sen. Bowen, who is very well informed on these topics, wasn't there.
There were five panels of speakers, and I got to lead off.
I laid the groundwork, explaining that spam is really bad, filtering is unavoidable, and that false positives are a big problem. Indeed, when I changed my ticket to go to Sacramento, the airline was supposed to send me a receipt and it never showed up. Certified mail, a FedEx for e-mail, that made it more reliable to deliver important messages, particularly ones that would otherwise be sent by paper mail would be good for everyone. In answers to questions I said that I didn't believe the AOL or anyone else was planning to charge for e-mail in general, both because it's infeasible and because it would annoy their users, but since AOL was there, they should ask to be sure. I also told them that certified e-mail of any flavor had nothing to do with spam, and I wished that the PR people hadn't confused the issue.
Next came Craig Hughes, one of the authors of Spamassassin, who talked mostly about e-mail technology, Mickey Chandler who said that there was no way that AOL could collect enough e-stamps in paid mail to make up for the loss of annoyed customers, so they're not going to use stamps to deliver mail that people don't want, Dave Crocker, newly consulting for Goodmail, who said that more options for reliable mail can only help, and Danny Goodman who agreed with us.
The second panel was business and non-profits, starting with Daveid Heimer of Service Roundtable, which provides on-line services to small businesses. He read a prepared statement that said that if he had to pay for mail, he couldn't afford it. Then Nick Leverlenz of the Drug Policy Alliance and Richie Ross of the United Farm Workers said extemporaneously that if they had to pay for mail, they couldn't afford it, and Joan Blades of moveon.org who said that if she had to pay for mail, she never could have started moveon. Since we already had said that nobody was going to ask them to do so, this panel wasn't very exciting, but what I found most interesting was Ms. Blades who rapidly made it clear that she doesn't understand the technology on which she depends at all, and moveon's famous mail problems are due to complete cluelessness, reinforced by bad advice from people who offered her paranoid theories about what are really mundane list quality issues.
The next panel led off with Eric Thomas of LISTSERV who said that he sent a whole lot of mail and couldn't afford to pay for e-postage, but made the interesting observation that they get a trickle of spammers trying to sign up who appear to have lots of money, often offering to prepay, so they can spam for high-cost items like drugs. Hence it's not universally true that spammers won't pay, and you better be careful who you certify. Matt Blumberg of ReturnPath said that certified mail is good, but per-piece charges aren't, big surprise, and Jordan Ritter of Cloudmark agreed with everyone else.
Then the senator grilled Charles Stiles, AOL's postmaster, and Richard Gingras of Goodmail, both of whom brought slide shows. Stiles said that AOL gets a vast amount of spam (the widely reported dip was temporary and now it's higher than ever) and phishes, but Goodmail helps people identify real trustworthy mail, and has nothing to do with stopping spam and only indirectly with phishing. Gingras then wowed the crowd with a well-polished presentation in which he made it clear that Goodmail is directed against phishing, not spam, both for transactional mail, and things like requests for donations from the Red Cross (one of their launch customers), since Red Cross donation phishes are a big problem.
In the questions that followed we learned several interesting things. One is that AOL and Goodmail both agree that they are responsible for the mail they stamp, to the extent that if a phish or virus sneaks through with a stamp, they're on the hook for damages. This is something new in the world of e-mail. They went over the pricing model at great length, and Gingras said that for low-volume mailers, particularly non-profits, Goodmail's per-piece charges will often be much cheaper than the fixed prices of their esteemed competitors. If you're a non-profit and you send out a few thousand messages a month and the stamps cost $5, that's all you pay, and $60/yr is a steal. I think he glossed over the cost of getting started, but maybe you can use an ESP that's already set up for Goodmail. For low-volume customers, assuming Goodmail has a plan to deal with the cost of scrutinizing customers in the first place, he's probably right. The senator had a whole bunch of hostile questions ready to demolish the anti-spam argument, and seemed disappointed that he couldn't use them since there was no anti-spam argument to demolish.
The panel after that had the public interest crowd including Danny O'Brien from the EFF, but I had to leave to catch a plane and missed it. People who stayed said the discussion was muted, and the EFF agreed that there were anti-spam approaches that were "mature", so maybe we all won't have to sift through 3,000 spams a day like they told me at the FTC meeting last year.
Overall, the hearing was much more informative and less of a circus than I had expected, and I wish I'd been able to stay until the end. They'll probably have more, maybe they'll invite me back.
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