After years as an Internet urban myth, the email tax appears to be close at hand. The New York TImes reports that AOL and Yahoo have partnered with startup Goodmail to start offering guaranteed delivery of mass email to organizations for a fee. Organizations with large email lists can pay to have their email go directly to AOL and Yahoo customers’ inboxes, bypassing spam filters. Goodmail claims that they will offer discounts to non-profits.
Moveon.org and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have joined together to create an alliance of nonprofit and public interest organizations to protest AOL’s plans. They argue that this two-tiered system will create an economic incentive to decrease investment into AOL’s spam filtering in order to encourage mass emailers to use the pay-to-deliver service. They have created an online petition called dearaol.com for people to request that AOL stop these plans. A similar protest to Yahoo who intends to launch this service after AOL is being planned as well. The alliance has created unusual bedfellows, including Gun Owners of America, AFL-CIO, Humane Society of United States and Human Rights Campaign, who are resisting the pressure to use this service.
Part of the leveling power of email is that the marginal cost of another email is effectively zero. By perverting this feature of email, smaller businesses, non-profits, and individuals will once again be put at a disadvantage to large affluent firms. Further, this service will do nothing to reduce spam, rather it is designed to help mass emailers. An AOL spokesman, Nicholas Graham is quoted as saying AOL will earn revenue akin to a “lemonade stand” which further questions by AOL would pursue this plan in the first place. Although the only affected parties will initially be AOL and Yahoo users, it sets a very dangerous precedent that goes against the democratizing spirit of the Internet and digital information.
It’s the end of the year, and thus time for the jeremiads. In a December 18 Los Angeles Times article, Reed Johnson warns that 2005 was the year when “mass culture” — by which Johnson seemed to mean mass media generally — gave way to a consumer-driven techno-cultural revolution. According to Johnson:
This was the year in which Hollywood, despite surging DVD and overseas sales, spent the summer brooding over its blockbuster shortage, and panic swept the newspaper biz as circulation at some large dailies went into free fall. Consumers, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more blissed out as they sampled an explosion of information outlets and entertainment options: cutting-edge music they could download off websites into their iPods and take with them to the beach or the mall; customized newcasts delivered straight to their Palm Pilots; TiVo-edited, commercial-free programs plucked from a zillion cable channels. The old mass culture suddenly looked pokey and quaint. By contrast, the emerging 21st century mass technoculture of podcasting, video blogging, the Google Zeitgeist list and “social networking software” that links people on the basis of shared interest in, say, Puerto Rican reggaeton bands seems democratic, consumer-driven, user-friendly, enlightened, opinionated, streamlined and sexy.
Or so it seems, Johnson continues: before we celebrate too much, we need to remember the difference between consumers and citizens. We are technoconsumers, not technocitizens, and as we celebrate our possibilites, we forget that “much of the supposedly independent and free-spirited techno-culture is being engineered (or rapidly acquired) by a handful of media and technology leviathans: News Corp., Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google, the budding General Motors of the Information Age.”
I hadn’t thought of Google as the GM of the Information Age. I’m not at all sure, actually, that the analogy works, given the different ways in which GM and Google leverage the US economy — fifty years hence, Google plant closures won’t be decimating middle America. But I’m very much behind Johnson’s call for more attention to media consolidation in the age of convergence. Soon, it’s going to be time for the Columbia Journalism Review to add the leviathans listed above to its Who Owns What page, which enables users to track the ownership of most old media products, but currently comes up short in tracking new media. Actually, they should consider updating it as of tomorrow, when the final details of Google’s billion dollar deal for five percent of AOL are made public.