Yahoo and AOL Offering Filter-Proof E-mail

Spam filters can keep users from seeing messages that aren't spam. America Online and Yahoo are planning systems that would allow a sender to bypass those filters — for a price. Will it deter the worst spammers or just change the equation of who benefits from spamming?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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AOL and Yahoo recently announced a program that would charge companies a fee for getting past junk mail filters. The two companies say the new program will help protect users from spam. But it's drawing criticism from some consumer advocates, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Here's how it works. Large companies like Citibank or L.L. Bean, and charities like the Red Cross will pay a fee of between a quarter of a cent up to a penny per e-mail to have their messages get a seal of legitimacy.

NICHOLAS GRAHAM: This system was designed to weed out the bad actors, but also to weed out the spammers, the scammers, the identity thieves, all of the internet miscreants you can think of.

SYDELL: Nicholas Graham is a vice president at America Online, which plans to introduce the program in the next few months. Graham says, in exchange for that penny, companies will get a special seal that gets their e-mails past the junk mail filter and directly into the user's inbox. He says the seal will ensure users that it's not a fraudulent e-mail meant to trick the recipient into giving up personal information.

GRAHAM: When you have a certified icon in your e-mail inbox, you can know and trust that sender is legitimate. Your hard earned dollars are going to relief efforts for Katrina. If you get it from the American Red Cross, you can donate right away.

SYDELL: But some consumer advocates are skeptical about the new system. Just because an e-mail is from a legitimate company, doesn't mean that users want to receive it, says Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit group.

PAM DIXON: I really do believe that Yahoo and AOL subscribers deserve the right to opt out of the entire program. They should have a choice as to whether or not they choose to receive any of these e-mails.

SYDELL: Yahoo and AOL say their users will have the option of unsubscribing after they get one e-mail from a company. But Dixon believes that's one unwanted e-mail too many. She also raises concerns about flaws in the screening system.

DIXON: There's always going to be one bad apple that slips through your net. And what are you going to do the first time you certify a fraudulent company? Answer, you're going to be the subject of a major lawsuit.

SYDELL: Companies like Yahoo and AOL could put clauses in their users agreement that protects them from lawsuits, and Dixon says that won't be fair to the consumers who get duped. Both AOL and Yahoo are using a company called Goodmail to screen the e-mails and provide the seal. Richard Gingras, the company's CEO, says there won't be mistakes.

RICHARD GINGRAS: We go through company background checks. What's their physical address? What is their credit rating? Suffice to say, if they've been in business less than a year, it will be very, very difficult for them to qualify to use certified e-mail.

SYDELL: But that brings up another criticism from Dixon of the World Privacy Forum. She wonders if the program will put smaller companies and nonprofits at a disadvantage. Small businesses might not be well known, and charities might not have the money to pay for the seal of approval. AOL and Yahoo say they block tens of millions of spam messages every year, including fishing scams looking for personal information. Brad Garlinghouse, Vice President of Communication Products at Yahoo, says, they need new tricks to stop them.

BRAD GARLINGHOUSE: This is not a silver bullet that is going to solve all things spam. Protecting users from identity theft and spam and fishing really is a hard problem.

SYDELL: But for now, critics wonder if this latest trick to stop spammers will really benefit the majority of AOL and Yahoo e-mail users.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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