Fact Check

AOL/Yahoo! E-mail Tax

Are AOL and Yahoo proposing to tax businesses for sending spam to their customers?

Published Feb. 23, 2006


Claim:   AOL and Yahoo! are proposing to "tax" e-mail messages.

Status:   Multiple — see below.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 2006]

Dear AOL user,

The very existence of online organizing and the free Internet as we know it are under attack by America Online. We need to fight back quickly.

AOL just announced what amounts to an "email tax." AOL would sell access to your inbox to giant corporations — allowing them to bypass spam filters and get messages directly into your inbox with a special high-priority designation. AOL says this fee will help deter spam, but it will actually help companies spam you more efficiently — and it'll lock out online organizing groups that can't afford to pay the price.

Can you sign this emergency petition to America Online and forward it to your friends-especially those who use AOL or care about keeping the Internet free?


Petition statement: "AOL, don't auction off access to my inbox to giant corporations, while leaving my friends, family, and favorite causes wondering if their emails to me are being delivered at all. The right way to deal with spam is to put more control in the hands of users and to keep email free."

AOL is not used to massive citizen outrage. When thousands of AOL users sign a petition, AOL will begin to understand they face a huge customer rebellion. Everyone who signs this petition will be sent information on how to contact AOL directly as well as future steps that can be taken until AOL drops its new policy.

The big loser would be customers — whose email from non-paying senders would increasingly be marked as spam and go undelivered. AOL pretends nothing would change for senders who don't pay, saying their emails will still be "accepted." But this is an empty promise since "accepting" non-paid emails means many will be thrown into the black hole of a spam filter or "stripped of images and Web links" to the point of being unreadable, as reported in the New York Times.

Another loser would be democracy on the Internet — which has thrived as regular citizens have been empowered to organize online, participate in civic life, and communicate with each other for free. If an "email tax" existed when MoveOn began, we never would have gotten off the ground.

Under AOL's proposed pay-to-send system, online organizing all across the political spectrum will suffer. Issue groups, charities, and other non-profits with large email lists will have to pay thousands of dollars for every email message sent. And AOL would get two paydays: one when you pay for your account and another when you're emailed by companies that bought priority access to your inbox.

Can you sign this emergency petition to America Online and forward it to your AOL friends?


Origins:   Many Americans hold the fatalistic view that we cannot long enjoy anything that is useful and inexpensive before the "inexpensive" factor is removed through big business' raising its price and/or the government's taxing it. The fear that such will be the fate of e-mail communications has been with us for several years now, as evidenced by the continuous circulation of a 1999 hoax message warning of an imminent 5¢ surcharge to be imposed by the U.S. Postal Service on every e-mail sent.

The announcement in February 2006 that two large e-mail providers, America Online (AOL) and Yahoo, were proposing to implement a system for allowing senders of commercial e-mail to receive preferential treatment by paying a per-message surcharge started a new "e-mail tax" scare, one largely created from unfounded fears based on misunderstandings of what AOL and Yahoo were proposing.

As described by the New York Times, the proposed scheme would work this way:

America Online and Yahoo, two of the world's largest providers of e-mail accounts, are about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered. The senders must promise to contact only people who have agreed to receive their messages, or risk being blocked entirely.

AOL and Yahoo will still accept e-mail from senders who have not paid, but the paid messages will be given special treatment. On AOL, for example, they will go straight to users' main mailboxes, and will not have to pass the gantlet of spam filters that could divert them to a junk-mail folder or strip them of images and Web links. As is the case now, mail arriving from addresses that users have added to their AOL address books will not be treated as spam

A few points about some facets of this scheme that are often misrepresented:

  • Referring to the proposed system as one which will implement an "e-mail tax" is inaccurate and misleading. No one is proposing that end users — ordinary AOL and Yahoo subscribers — be charged for sending or receiving e-mail. AOL and Yahoo are proposing to assess a cost-of-business surcharge to companies who want to ensure their commercial messages reach the inboxes of AOL and Yahoo subscribers instead of being diverted to trash folders by filters already in place to trap unsolicited commercial e-mail (better known as "spam").
  • E-mail senders who opt not to pay the surcharge will not be prevented from sending messages to AOL and Yahoo subscribers. Their messages will simply continue to pass through the same spam filters both AOL and Yahoo have had in place for years.
  • The notion that non-commercial or non-profit on-line groups will be priced out of existence by being required to "pay thousands of dollars for every email message sent" is unfounded. Nobody is proposing that such groups' messages be blocked, or that they be handled any differently that they are now. Yes, such messages will have to get past spam filters before they're delivered, but that's already the case, and it has been for a long time.
  • As for fears that the initiative will result in the release of torrents of spam from paying senders into the mailboxes of AOL and Yahoo e-mail users, the cited New York Times articles notes that "senders must promise to contact only people who have agreed to receive their messages, or risk being blocked entirely."

On the last point, we can speak from experience as an organization that has long sent out weekly free mailings to a very large subscriber base (and our mailings are particularly susceptible to being filtered out as spam or fraud attempts, because much of what we write about are the very same hoaxes, scams, and frauds that are being circulated via e-mail). Many, many e-mail providers (not just AOL and Yahoo) have long had in place filters to trap or strip e-mail sent to large numbers of recipients or containing external web links and embedded images (because those features are hallmarks of spam and fraud). The best way for AOL and Yahoo subscribers to ensure that our mailings reach them is to be sure to designate our address in their accounts as an authorized e-mail sender, an option that will not be changing. ("As is the case now, mail arriving from addresses that users have added to their AOL address books will not be treated as


We have on occasion had problems with some e-mail providers (including AOL) mistakenly flagging our newsletters as spam and blocking them entirely; usually a single e-mail or phone call is sufficient to clear up the problem. Of all the Internet providers we've dealt with in this regard, AOL has by far been the most polite, responsive, and easy to deal with.

Some critics maintain that legitimate messages from non-surcharge-paying companies with whom subscribers already do business (such as order confirmations or notifications of special deals) could get flagged as spam and sent to trash folders, especially since subscribers can't necessarily anticipate the return addresses such messages will be sent from in order to authorize them in advance — but again, it's already the case that such messages are subject to spam filtering. The AOL/Yahoo scheme merely offers companies an option for avoiding an existing problem.

Much of the outrage expressed towards the proposed AOL/Yahoo surcharge system is based on the assumption that once it is implemented more and more e-mail from non-paying senders will be flagged as spam and diverted to trash folders, but we
have not seen any evidence to support that assumption — nothing we've read so far indicates that AOL and Yahoo will be changing the way they currently filter incoming mail, as an AOL representative confirmed in responding to our query:

There is a tremendous amount of misinformation floating around about CertifiedEmail and the implications of such a program. AOL has no plans of terminating the whitelist and your delivery should remain unaffected. We are working diligently to set the record straight and provide the information people need to better understand this program.

Even if some people's worst fears are realized and the proposed surcharge system is implemented and proves too costly, cumbersome and/or restrictive to users (some big "ifs" there), consumers have one obvious recourse: there are a lot of other e-mail providers to choose from.

Last updated:   23 February 2006

  Sources Sources:

    Hansell, Saul.   "Postage Due, with Special Delivery, for Companies Sending E-Mail to AOL and Yahoo."

    The New York Times.   5 February 2006   (p. A25).

    Swartz, Jon.   "Marketers Bristle at Certified E-Mail."

    USA Today.   6 February 2006   (p. B1).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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