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Fiasco! AOL Censoring Critics' Mail?

Jason Lee Miller
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-04-14

The high drama surrounding AOL's arrangement with Goodmail's CertifiedEmail service was further escalated Thursday after MoveOn.org, one of the company's most brutal critics, announced that AOL had blocked emails containing links to MoveOn's petition site, DearAOL.com.

From the Major Motion Picture Elizabethtown
As somebody once said...there's a difference between a failure...and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure.

But a fiasco…A fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others... that makes other people feel more alive... because it didn't happen to them.

The event comes on the heels of national uproar over what seemed to be AOL's plan to phase out their free EnhancedWhitelist in favor of Goodmail's fee-based authentication service. AOL was quick to make a subsequent announcement that the EnhancedWhitelist would remain.

But MoveOn.org, among others, doesn't buy that it's not still on the agenda. Calling the proposed system anything from "email tax" to "extortion," the traditionally left-wing organization united the most unlikely of opponents from Gun Owners of America to Cleanpeace.org, from RightMarch.com to the Democratic National Committee.

It's like looking out the window to see Charlton Heston holding hands with Alec Baldwin. MoveOn.org has collected over 350,000 individual signatures to its DearAOL petition, and garnered support from over 600 businesses and organizations. In total, says MoveOn's Adam Green, the list of petitioners counts 15 million people.

That type of opposition was enough to land AOL and Goodmail in front of the California legislature earlier this week to explain the situation. After the hearing, MoveOn and a host of other opponents lambasted Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras for reversing what had been the chief selling point for the partnership for the past couple of months.

On Wednesday, MoveOn sent out notices to those on its email list pointing out the seeming contradictions and using them as evidence of AOL's loss of trustworthiness. But AOL members were not receiving those messages. Anyone who tried to forward the message on to AOL accounts had their messages bounced back with notice of permanent failure of delivery.

MoveOn, who has accused AOL of lying throughout the ordeal, was quick to send out notice:

"AOL was caught red-handed censoring email, and now the public knows their credibility is gone," said Adam Green, a spokesperson for MoveOn.org Civic Action.

"Think about it. AOL's first reaction was to tell reporters that the DearAOL.com Coalition were spammers, and their second reaction was to unblock our emails. They can't both be true - why would AOL unblock the email of spammers? AOL was caught censoring email, then they were caught lying about our coalition, and in the end AOL proved they cannot be trusted to preserve the free and open Internet."

The timing of the blockage is what makes many suspicious of AOL's action - a fact that is either damning or unfortunate. But AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham told WebProNews that the problem was the result of a technical glitch during system upgrades, and that technicians were working on the problem long before MoveOn sent them notice.

"We noticed it early on Thursday. We were contacted by someone at MoveOn.org around 12:45 and were well on our way to a fix," said Graham.

Graham said that at least 50 or 60 websites were affected by the glitch, including DearAOL.com, and called the incident "regrettable."

"No medium is going to operate seamlessly every day," said Graham. "We offer our regrets to anyone that's been involved. It involves some very complicated software and hardware. We were able to fix it within 9 hours."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, isn't buying that explanation, echoing sentiments from many who believe email blocking often occurs, but the high profile of MoveOn.org brought the issue to light.

"The fact is, ISPs like AOL commonly make these kinds of arbitrary decisions - silently banning huge swathes of legitimate mail on the flimsiest of reasons - every day, and no-one hears about it," said Danny O'Brien, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"AOL's planned CertifiedEmail system would let them profit from this power by offering to charge legitimate mailers to bypass these malfunctioning filters."

ClickZ, AOL's chief media apologist since the situation began, and blogger Kevin Newcomb thinks that MoveOn is "tilting at windmills."

"AOL's explanation makes more sense than the coalition's scenario," writes Newcomb. "The DearAOL petition has been circulating freely through AOL's e-mail system since February, so it seems a bit odd that the company would suddenly decide to begin blocking them two months later."

The oddness here, though, is the timing. It seems to many to be very suspect that - as the situation was reaching fever pitch, after months of being slammed by everyone, after the DearAOL petition was gaining critical mass, after contradictory statements were made and illuminated in the California legislature -- that the DearAOL.com URLs were suddenly prevented from reaching emails a day after MoveOn.org's email blitz about the week's events.

It was either an orchestrated glitch or an incredibly unfortunate coincidence. Either way, the Goodmail CertifiedEmail/AOL endeavor has become a fiasco of epic proportions.

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

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