NEW YORK -- An unlikely coalition of interest groups ranging from the liberal MoveOn.org to the Gun Owners of America launched a campaign yesterday against America Online's plan to charge a fee to ensure that bulk e-mail gets delivered.
AOL, the online division of Time Warner Inc., says the program coming this month will reduce spam by allowing high-volume e-mail senders to pay for each message. This "certified e-mail" would bypass junk mail filters and bear a seal of legitimacy.
Calling this an "e-mail tax," the coalition of more than 50 groups with about 15 million members said the plan creates an online class system that hurts individuals and small groups and is the "first step down a slippery slope that will harm the Internet itself."
"We have large e-mail providers, including AOL, that want to turn e-mail communication into a privileged realm for those who can afford to pay a corporate tax," said Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, which describes itself as a national media reform group.
The coalition, which said its members include up to 4 million of AOL's 19.5 million customers, did not rule out a boycott of the Internet provider. But the Gun Owners of America is threatening to have its members leave AOL.
The coalition, which launched an online petition yesterday at www.dear- aol.com, also includes the conservative group RightMarch.com, the AFL-CIO labor confederation, environmental groups, medical support organizations, and Craig Newmark, founder of the online classified service Craigslist.
AOL accused its critics of making misleading accusations, objecting particularly to descriptions of the plan as a tax, since no one is required to pay.
"Much of what has been heard today falls into three clear categories: political fundraising, competitive chatter and the omnipresent fear of change- even when it's for the better," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said.
"We believe more choices, and more alternatives, for safety and e-mail authentication is a good thing for the Internet, not bad," he said.
AOL's certified e-mail uses technology from Goodmail Systems Inc., which plans to charge a fraction of a cent for each message. AOL called any revenue "materially intangible" given what it already spends on fighting spam and Internet threats.
Yahoo Inc. also plans to begin testing the technology in coming months.
Spammers will be kept away, since certified e-mail senders will be screened and required to have a recipient's permission, AOL and Goodmail said. They said charities and other nonprofit groups would receive discounts.
The current system, in which the cost of sending e-mail is minimal, has given small organizations and individuals the ability to reach a vast audience. But it also has allowed for the explosive growth of spam advertising and e-mail fraud schemes because only a tiny proportion of recipients need to respond for senders to profit.
About 69 percent of e-mail now is spam, according to e-mail security firm Postini Inc.
The certified e-mail system could be effective against spam when combined with other technologies, Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo said.
Competitive pressure will likely keep AOL and other providers honest, Laszlo said. If they abuse the technology by letting spammers use it or penalize smaller senders who cannot afford certification, there is a "huge risk of massive consumer backlash," he said.
AOL emphasized that its paid service will be optional and normal free e-mail would not be affected.
But those assurances did little to comfort critics.
The coalition said in an open letter that attracting large e-mail senders to the paid service gives AOL a financial incentive to neglect its spam filters and free mail, potentially hurting small groups that cannot afford guaranteed delivery.
"By suddenly offering a two-tier system, AOL guarantees that over time those using the free delivery system will suffer from a degradation of service," said Gilles Frydman, founder of the Association of Cancer Online Resources. The New York group said it sends nearly 1.5 million e-mail messages a week.