Friday, February 10, 2006

Do I Look Simple? Wait, Don't Answer That

As I type, my email account is probably receiving an unwanted message or three. Maybe it's another of the occasional communiques from my Nigerian 'friend' updating me on the status of our get rich quick scheme. Possibly the message is from CBSportsline encouraging me to sign up for Fantasy Golf (ugh, football is where I draw the line). Or the helpful in spirit, though not really in practice, Progress Report (is it too much to ask for more fact than spin in a talking points document?). Fortunately, I'll never see any of them thanks to the built-in spam filter.

AOL and Yahoo! would like to change that and have me thank them for the service. Thanks to an upcoming pay-for-delivery email service, senders can have their emails routed around the built in spam filter and guaranteed to show up in the Inbox. AOL and Yahoo! have the audacity to bill this as a spam prevention plan. Yes, my Nigerian 'friend' will probably not opt-in for this service (we're trying to get rich quick, but we're not there yet). On the other hand, CBS might be willing to pay.

The spam filters of today are remarkably successful at detecting these nothing but scam and spam emails and keeping them out of the Inbox. So successful, in fact, that the volume of spam is on the decline (a few years ago spam was a virtual epidemic which threatened to swamp email as we knew it). In other words, email providers already have a good spam prevention tool. Only it doesn't bring in much revenue. There's simply no reason to pretend this program has anything to do with reducing the spam in Inboxes. Instead of reducing spam, I expect that what any individual account holder considers spam is likely to increase as a result. In the final analysis, users will receive a degraded service while the provider will see their profits increase.

This is, plain and simple, a revenue raising tool made possible by new technology. Similar plans (the Economist had a nice article on this topic a few months back, but it's behind a pay wall so f'm) are being considered by broadband providers. As AT&T, Verizon, and the like see it, the Yahoo!s and Googles of the world are freeloading on the broadband provider's infrastructure. And they should pay up. While technologically a Verizon could block access to Google within their network, consumers would not sign up with a service provider that didn't allow them to google anything. Instead, the idea in circulation would discriminate against the freeloaders by giving priority over the network to content providers who pay for the special treatment. Google pages would take twice as long to load as MSN pages, for instance. Among the prime beneficiaries of this approach would be content provided by the broadband network itself (a re-AOLization of the Internet if you will... because that has remained quite popular as web navigation has become user-friendly). The net result for the end user is an Internet experience which is on the whole slower (the privileged group wouldn't show up faster than they would absent this discrimination but the 'freeloaders' would be slower). From a consumer perspective we're talking about the same price for an inferior service, higher prices for web content (paying content providers would pass along at least a portion of their costs to the user community), and greater profits for the provider. Sounds a lot like the email scam, no?

Seriously, why would I want either of these (dis)services to take place? In the case of broadband providers, they do have one argument: the additional revenue would allow them to spend more upgrading their network. Faster networks are desirable- but if Verizon wants to provide me with a faster network, they should charge me. However, Verizon, like Willie Sutton before them, would prefer to hit up Google and other content providers. Afterall, Google's pockets are a lot deeper than mine.

More fundamentally, why should I be held captive to Verizon and friends' pursuit of more cash? Isn't there a public interest in unimpeded access to these pipes?

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