Both sides of the US political spectrum have found an issue to unite them: free email.
Next Tuesday, a group of nonprofit organisations and small businesses will announce the formation of a coalition aimed at putting a stop to AOL and Yahoo's plans to charge mass emailers. The coalition, expected to be launched at a press event in New York, will be sponsored by digital rights advocacy group the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), and will include two political adversaries: the liberal MoveOn.org and the conservative RightMarch.com political action committees.
"We have been putting together a rather large coalition of groups from across the spectrum," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the EFF. "They are mainly nonprofit or political groups or small business concerns. They're all people who can't afford to pay to get their message across."
The coalition wants the two internet giants to abandon plans to adopt an email certification system developed by Goodmail that could relegate some email to second-class status, Cohn said. "I think they need to abandon this plan," said Cohn. "The ISPs' view that they can auction off preferred access to my email box is really wrong. It's not theirs to sell."
Yahoo and AOL first signed on to use Goodmail's CertifiedEmail service last October, but the service has come under scrutiny as the two companies have come closer to deploying it. With CertifiedEmail, senders agree not to send unsolicited email. They pay a fee of between a quarter of a US cent and one cent in order for their messages to receive preferential treatment in AOL and Yahoo in-boxes.
AOL is expected to begin using the service "in the next month", and it will be available to Yahoo users "shortly thereafter", a Goodmail spokeswoman said.
Earlier this week, MoveOn.org and RightMarch.com argued that the bulk emailer fees would ultimately harm the free exchange of ideas.
"The very existence of online civic participation and the free internet as we know it are under attack by AOL," wrote MoveOn.org in its alert, sent out to members on Wednesday.
MoveOn.org has started an online petition calling for AOL to abandon the service.
AOL has no intention of backing away from CertifiedEmail, which will be rolled out within 30 days, according to AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. Like the US Postal Service's Priority Mail, the service simply gives customers another choice in how to send and receive messages, he said. "We are absolutely intent on using this as an additional tool to protect the sanctity of the email experience for our members," Graham said.
Graham had no comment on EFF's coalition, saying it would be inappropriate to comment on it before its unveiling. "The only coalition we care about is our users," he said.
On Wednesday RightMarch.com, which was formed in response to MoveOn.org's 2003 'Virtual March on Washington', called on its members to contact Yahoo and AOL headquarters, "demanding that they abandon their plans for a 'pay-to-speak' system".
"We spend thousands of dollars a month on email delivery services to make sure all of our members receive our alerts. And very soon, thanks to AOL and Yahoo, we might not be able to afford to send them," said the RightMarch.com alert.
By Thursday, RightMarch.com members had sent more than 28,000 email messages opposing the Goodmail service, according to RightMarch.com president William Greene.
But Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras claimed critics such as Greene and the EFF are ignoring the consumer benefits that CertifiedEmail provides by assuring recipients that their email messages are legitimate. "It's a very important service that email needs today," he said. Yahoo and AOL have made similar claims in the past.
Gingras said that while some nonprofit organisations such as the American Red Cross have seen CertifiedEmail as an important tool in preventing fraud, no one will be forced to use it. "This is an optional service," he said. "Certified email is not something that every volume sender needs to use."
Nonetheless, Goodmail plans to introduce a new pricing plan for nonprofit groups who wish to use the service.
Gingras would not say what this new service will cost, but organisations such as RightMarch.com are concerned about any new email costs.
RightMarch.com sends between two million and three million emails per week, and a third of its members use Yahoo or AOL email addresses, said Greene.
Concern that it would suddenly have to pay for all of those messages prompted the organisation to join the EFF coalition, Greene said. "We're just a grassroots-based organisation; we don't have any big funders," he said. "This is a huge issue for us."
Greene admitted that it was unusual to see his group and MoveOn.org united on an issue. "It's one of those dogs and cats living together kind of things," he said.
Cohn could not reveal how many members had joined the effort to date, but she said that next week's announcement would feature a diverse group. "It's going to be not only right and left, but up, down, every way you go," she said.