The fees, which would range from 1/4 cent to 1 cent per e-mail, are the latest attempts by the companies to weed out unsolicited ads, commonly called spam, and identity-theft scams. In exchange for paying, e-mail senders will be guaranteed their messages won't be filtered and will bear a seal alerting recipients they're legitimate.
CBS News Technology Consultant Larry Magid has doubts.
"It is a useful way for companies like AOL and Yahoo to help differentiate known legitimate bulk mail from junk mail, but it's not foolproof. The companies will still have to employ filters to attempt to keep spam from users' mailboxes," Magid says.
Both companies have long filtered e-mail by searching for keywords commonly contained in spam and fraudulent e-mail. AOL also strips images and Web links from many messages to prevent the display of pornographic pictures and malicious Web addresses. Both practices sometimes falsely identify legitimate messages as junk mail, making life difficult for businesses that rely on e-mail.
"We were hearing not only from members but also e-mail partners that they wanted a different way of delivering e-mail that would stand out in the inbox and would guarantee them delivery," said spokesman Nicholas Graham, adding that AOL, a division of New York-based Time Warner Inc., will start offering the service in the next two months.
Company spokeswoman Karen Mahon said Sunday Sunnyvale-based Yahoo will begin offering a similar service in the coming months.
The plan, while it is optional and would apply to only a fraction of people sending e-mail, amounts to a reversal in the economics of the Internet because it would charge message senders rather than those receiving them. The current model has led to the proliferation of spam and so-called phishing scams because the people perpetuating them can turn a profit even when only a minority of recipients respond, analysts have said.
AOL and Yahoo said the program, which is being offered through a company called Goodmail Systems, will target banks, online retailers and other groups that send large amounts of e-mail. In exchange for a payment and a pledge to contact only people who have agreed to receive their messages, the companies would be ensured their e-mails aren't diverted to spam folders or have images or Web addresses filtered out.
The companies also would receive reports showing how many e-mails were received successfully. The American Red Cross, the New York Times Co. and credit report company Experian have signed up with Goodmail to use the service, Graham said. AOL and Yahoo would get a cut of the fees charged by Goodmail.
Companies that don't want to pay a fee will be able to send e-mail to Yahoo and AOL members exactly as they have in the past, Graham and Mahon said.