Goodmail Systems made a splash recently with the announcement that several ISPs with national reach had signed up for the company’s CertifiedEmail service. By paying .25 cents per message, bulk email senders that meet certification requirements can send messages that will bypass the incoming email filters of these ISPs. Goodmail figures that 65% of business-to-consumer email marketing is covered by their service. Controversy has been Goodmail’s bedfellow from the start. Back in early 2006, when AOL and Yahoo! signed up with Goodmail, public interest groups blasted the service. Cindy Cohn of the EFF wrote


They will override their own spam filters and webbug-strippers, and deliver the mail directly with a “certified” notice. In the process, they will treat more of your email as spam, and email you’re expecting won’t be delivered.

The advocacy site, signed by over 500 organizations including the AFL-CIO, the EFF, and Gun Owners of America, posted an open letter to AOL, claiming:

A pay-to-send system won’t help the fight against spam – in fact, this plan assumes that spam will continue and that mass mailers will be willing to pay to have their emails bypass spam filters. And non-paying spammers will not reduce the amount of mail they throw at your filters simply because others pay to evade them.

The overall tone of initial attacks on Goodmail’s service was in some ways a predecessor of Net Neutrality arguments that would spring to life a few short months later in the spring of 2006. By providing a means by which moneyed interests could send certified email messages, Goodmail ostensibly would create a two-tiered email system. Those who paid for certification could be sure their messages made it to their destination, while those without money (nonprofit groups in particular) could not afford the same level of guaranteed service. Certified bulk email would make it past spam filters, while uncertified email would get stopped by spam filters and potentially receive secondary priority of delivery. On the other end of the spectrum, John Levine pointed out at the time that Goodmail’s system was never really about fighting spam anyway. It was about eliminating false positives in email filtering. Server-side email filtering’s weakness has always been that it sometimes snares a few legitimate messages. Goodmail’s service aimed to make sure messages from trusted senders like your bank, your insurance company, and so on could get their messages past the server-side filtering. So is Goodmail akin to the hypothetical wherein ATT provides a guarantee that you’ll be able to get to Yahoo! all the time, while not making the same guarantee about Google access? Perhaps it is too early to tell. According to an eWeek article by Larry Seltzer, Goodmail hasn’t made much of an impact one way or another, as its biggest customers still seem to be rolling out the service. Seltzer also alludes to an intriguing difference between email certification and the Net Neutrality debate:

And in the very long term I think that e-mail is the wrong venue for opt-in communications anyway. The sooner all that moves to RSS, which is a pull system from which users can unsubscribe when they wish, the better.

No argument here. RSS is hands-down a better way to manage opt-in communications. Unfortunately it doesn’t have anything near the consumer adoption of email, and isn’t likely to for a while, if ever. But perhaps the real point is that certified email is not the only means of large-scale opt-in communications over the Internet. In the Net Neutrality debate, there is no alternative to the Internet. But there is an alternative to bulk email. With RSS available as an alternative, ISPs won’t want to overplay their hand with Goodmail. If they do, the nonprofits and smaller companies that have complained about Goodmail might start promoting RSS more heavily, and in so doing, route around email altogether.