Political speech is completely protected speech.
Politicians, advocacy groups, and, for example, purveyors of deodorants increasingly make use of the same marketing techniques. Of the three, only the purveyors of deodorant face legal limits to how far they may stretch either the capabilities of their product, or the dire consequences of choosing a competing one instead.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. But being allowed to say nearly anything doesn’t confer an obligation to do so. Take MoveOn.org’s current campaign against AOL‘s plan to offer a premium e-mail delivery service. I’m a bit surprised that Amnesty International hasn’t filed a complaint against MoveOn.org for torturing logic so cruelly.
In case you missed the announcement: For a quarter-cent per piece, AOL will let bulk e-mailers bypass its spam filters and guarantee delivery. MoveOn.org contends that providing a unit-priced premium e-mail service in addition to flat-rate delivery will end democracy as we know it.
It’s probably a waste of time deconstructing the argument (I hesitate to call it logic) behind MoveOn.org’s complaint. Regrettably, it’s an issue many IT managers need to pay attention to, because both AOL and MoveOn.org have it badly wrong. AOL’s flub is likely to cause you some headaches. MoveOn.org’s inept attempt at political diatribe is likely to cloud the situation badly enough to prevent the engineering discussions the industry needs to engage in so you can avoid the headaches.
I’ll keep it as brief as I can. MoveOn.org inaccurately describes AOL’s plan as an e-mail tax when it’s nothing more than a usage-based alternative to flat-rate pricing. It is vaguely amusing to see an organization on the political left use “tax” as a red-flag word, though. Grover Norquist must be pleased.
MoveOn.org contends that once this service exists, AOL will lose its financial incentive to maintain its spam filters. That’s nonsense. The quality of its spam filters and other consumer protection technologies is a major selling point for AOL. If it were to stop maintaining them, its customers would move to a different ISP that costs less or offers better protection.
Then there’s the funny bit: MovOn.org warns that once this nefarious billing scheme is in place, e-mail delivery would become unreliable for everyone else — unaware, I guess, that it’s unreliable right now — according to some estimates, the failure rate for legitimate commercial e-mail is about 10%.
My own initial concern was over the whole idea that by paying a fee, bulk e-mailers would be allowed to bypass spam filters — with the potential for children to start receiving unwelcome messages. But the folks selling various … ahem … unwholesome products are unlikely to spend the money. When you blast out 20 million e-mails expecting a .0001% response rate, you aren’t likely to pay AOL an extra $50,000 to get guaranteed delivery.
So what’s the problem? Chances are high your marketing department and sales force makes use of commercial e-mail as part of your company’s legitimate selling efforts. Chances are almost as high that your company would benefit from the kind of premium delivery service AOL is proposing. (So, by the way, would everyone else, since it would create a financial incentive for targeted marketing instead of random blitzes.)
But AOL hasn’t announced an industry-wide, coordinated, standards-based effort. Since your company doesn’t market exclusively to customers using AOL.com, you have to apply the Mom principle: What if everyone did it?
Consider the impact. Right now there’s just one service (AOL, and Yahoo as well, plan to resell Goodmail, which provides an “imprinting appliance”). Imagine, though, that other ISPs (MSN, perhaps?) don’t follow suit and develop their own systems. Do you really want to have to properly route each outbound e-mail to the right imprinting appliance?
I didn’t think so.
Oh … don’t forget the really fun part: Writing reconciliation reports to determine whether AOL, MSN, Earthlink and everyone else billed you correctly. You weren’t going to just trust them, were you?
Done right, AOL’s proposal would benefit everyone — even MoveOn.org, which could use it to more reliably solicit funds from its best donors. But doing it right means leading the industry, not acting unilaterally.
So here’s a suggestion: Do what MoveOn.org suggests. Contact AOL to express your concern — not that it’s about to bring about the end of freedom in the United States of America, but that it’s about to cause you unwanted headaches that will prevent you from using its service.
That’s a businesslike argument AOL and its competitors can relate to.