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Whitelist Stays: AOL’s Goodmail Dance

Jason Lee Miller
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-02-08

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Let's start by putting out a fire. America Online is not, repeat, is not phasing out its Enhanced Whitelist email system and rewarding that elite group of good emailers by extorting a fraction of a cent per hyperlink and image laden emails through Goodmail as a new type of email postage charge.

Pay no attention to the AOL Postmaster behind the curtain, and resume your bulk emailing as usual. The looked-like-a-press-release-but-really-wasn't memo issued by Charles Stiles was only a test.

This is a very intriguing story, especially to hear AOL tell it. But, as cooler heads review, there may be more to this story than meets the eye. And we may never know all the details, but we may see some excellent tap dancing.

The saga began on January 30th, when it appeared that AOL and Goodmail were taking measures to pass on the cost of spam filtering to legitimate bulk email marketers. The news hit national press, taking AOL by surprise and the backlash from marketers calling the program "email postage" forced the Internet company to issue an apparent reversal.

But AOL says it didn't reverse anything because there was never a change, nor a press release announcing the change, and that all the resulting hoopla was hype and propaganda set up by Goodmail competitors and others as part of a misinformation campaign. But didn't that misinformation begin with the press release that Charles Stiles issued?

"There was no press release," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham told WebProNews. And look, no press release on the website, that's right!

What the Direct Marketing Association, ClickZ, the New York Times and a couple hundred other news organizations only thought was a press release was really a 668-word (hang on, have to check my notes) "thought piece…a two page memo." Wow, really looks like a press release, except for the salutation at the end. Wait, Direct Marketing Association says it was a "statement."

"There's a difference between that and a release," he said. And look, not one press release on the site. Graham said there's been a lot of "dim and clutter" in the press. The (what was it again?) "thought piece" was a feeler seeking feedback from selected channels.

But the language of the…thought piece/memo thing….it seems fairly definite. There's no indication that it seeks response or that this is anything but a done deal. Let's look at some of the language Mr. Stiles used:

"In 2006, AOL will make important changes…"

"AOL has now determined that… it must take additional steps…"

"With the introduction of the CertifiedEmail service, AOL will phase out the Enhanced Whitelist program. This transition will be implemented according to the following schedule…"


But that wasn't a press release (only a few people got it). It was a thought-piece/memo seeking feedback. Maybe Stiles asks for the feedback at the end of the memo.

"Regards,

Charles Stiles
AOL Postmaster"


That's weird. So, why uh…why does it sound like a plan of intent? How is this a misinformation campaign when the misinformation came from the AOL camp?

"We bear some degree of responsibility for that," said Graham. Did I mention that AOL has reduced spam in its users' inbox by 75 percent since its peak in 2003? I wasn't going to, but since Graham did, thought I'd pass it on.

Okay, so a thought piece or a memo isn't a release, it's an open dialogue. It looks like AOL at some point may have planned to implement the phase out. Is that still on the table for the future?

"We have no plans to do so, and anyone who says otherwise is engaging in propaganda," says Graham.

But AOL does appear to have said that, even if in a poorly worded statement--no, thought piece--that wasn't supposed to be released. So is AOL in a propaganda campaign against itself? Are the select publications that published the information that Stiles sent them spreading propaganda? Why send a statement to them?

Wait, it wasn't a statement. AOL's trusted sources just thought it was a statement.

But a reliable somebody told WebProNews they were sent the statement the week before they published it the following Monday, and were told to hold it for a few days. After the agreed upon holding period was finished, no further information (or feedback) came from AOL and the information was published. And then AOL's world blew up.

"A small group of people took [the non-statement] and did some things with it that were not appropriate," said Graham. Oh, did I mention AOL has cut spam by 75 percent?

So let's review. A small group of people (AOL trusted media) received a memo with definite language stating that a phasing out of the free Enhanced Whitelist was forthcoming, and that those already trusted mailers would have to pay a fee to keep links and images in tact.

The publishers allegedly believed it was a statement, did not receive information to the contrary, were allegedly asked to hold the information for a few days, did so, and published the information believing it was true.The national media picked up the story, bulk marketers everywhere threw fits at the cost implications.

AOL backpedals saying that not only is it not getting rid of its whitelist but that the accusations were the result of competitors' misinformation and propaganda and there was no plan to do away with the Enhanced Whitelist. Even though, according to Graham, AOL has no obligation to maintain a free email whitelist.

That's a really interesting story. I can see why the press got into all that "dim and clutter."




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About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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