The Marketplace Report: E-Mail for a Price

E-mail correspondence may soon carry a price tag. Yahoo! and America Online, two of the world's biggest e-mail account providers, plan to introduce a service that charges a small fee to route e-mail directly to mailboxes. Madeleine Brand talks to Bob Moon of Marketplace about what's behind the proposed e-mail fees.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

You don't want spam junk e-mail, but you might want a reminder from your bank or your mortgage company to pay your bills, and those reminders may not always get to you with the e-mail filters that exist these days. So now two big e-mail providers think they have a solution to give businesses a way to get their e-mail delivered directly to your inbox. From the Marketplace News Bureau in New York, Bob Moon joins us with the details.

And Bob, this service involves, I assume, some money.

Mr. BOB MOON (Host, Marketplace): It does indeed. Both America Online and Yahoo! are planning to start offering this service. It's primarily aimed at businesses in the next couple of months. The question here is how you define spam; it's not just any business correspondence that you might receive in your e-mail as you suggest. Sometimes you might want to receive advertising from a particular merchant, or you might want to get a legitimate e-mail from your bank or somebody else, and that's the idea behind this service. Companies would pay a fee; it would range from a quarter of a penny to one cent per e-mail and they'd be guaranteed that their messages wouldn't get filtered out. And in fact, they would bear a seal that would alert the recipient of the e-mail that they are indeed legitimate.

The problem here is, as you mentioned earlier is that if your bank or somebody else has your e-mail address now and they send you something, there's a chance that the e-mail, legitimate though it may be, might be intercepted by these automatic spam filters and deleted before you actually see it, or at least it could be diverted to a spam folder that you might not check all the time. And this way banks, and retailers, and other businesses that send a lot of e-mail but do it legitimately would be able to make sure that it gets through.

BRAND: So what's to prevent spammers from signing up for the service?

Mr. MOON: Well, even at a penny an e-mail, this would end up costing companies a lot of money to flood everybody with unwanted e-mail. The way that these scamers work, they flood everybody with spam. So even with only a fraction of people responding, they can make a profit. In this case the companies that sign up would get a report of how many e-mails were actually received successfully, so they would actually be able to see what they're getting for their money. The service is being offered through a company called Good Mail Systems. And a spokesman for AOL says so far the American Red Cross, the New York Times Company, and the credit reporting company Experian have signed up to use this program.

BRAND: So Bob where is this all leading; are we eventually going to have to pay to send e-mails?

Mr. MOON: Good question. No indication of that right now, but AOL and Yahoo! Say that this plan is totally optional. Only a tiny fraction of those sending e-mail will it apply to. But it does kind of raise the question, will we have to pay eventually? Both say right now that those who don't pay a fee will still be able to send their e-mail the same way.

Today in the Marketplace newsroom we're looking into what the chocolate industry is doing to fight child slavery on cocoa farms.

BRAND: Bob Moon of Public Radio's daily business show Marketplace. And Marketplace is produced by American Public Media.

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