A variety of interest groups have joined forces to fight a proposed bulk e-mailing fee they claim strikes at the heart of online communication - a level playing field for rich and poor.
America Online plans to introduce a service that would charge businesses and other bulk e-mailers a fee to route their e-mail directly to a user's mailbox without first passing through junk mail filters.
Another major provider, Yahoo, in the coming months will test an optional certified e-mail program based on "transactional" messages only, such as bank statements and purchase receipts, Yahoo spokeswoman Karen Mahon said.
"Yahoo is not planning to require payments for businesses or organizations to send e-mail to Yahoo users. Companies can continue to send e-mail to Yahoo e-mail users at no cost in exactly the same way they always have."
Citing AOL's plan, Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, said, "The creativity and ingenuity that have driven the Internet have always relied on an open platform where the haves and have-nots get treated equally. This e-mail tax system is a big step toward dismantling that system."
The alliance protesting the move includes liberal activist group MoveOn, the conservative activist group RightMarch.com, the U.S. Humane Society, labor and environmental groups and online medical communities.
AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham replied: "No matter what the political rhetoric is, AOL will remain resolute in our pursuit of improving e-mail safety and security in doing what is right for our members. That simply is not going to change."
"There is no substantive news here," said Graham, "just because some disparate groups of advocates have come together for an event reminiscent of the bar scene in the first 'Star Wars' movie."
Gilles Frydman of the Association of Cancer Online Resources said bulk e-mail charges will cause problems for organizations like his.
"We cannot pay for the service, we don't have the money," Frydman said. "We have been doing this for 11 years based on the standards of Internet communication. Those standards do not include paying for service. This one company is trying to transform unilaterally how the Internet works."
Frydman said some patients with rare forms of cancer may have trouble receiving updated information on a timely basis.
The campaign is focused more on AOL than Yahoo because AOL "is going full speed ahead" with its plans, while Yahoo has been more tentative, said MoveOn spokesman Adam Green.
E-mail senders that pay the fee will be guaranteed their messages won't be filtered and will bear a seal alerting recipients they're legitimate. The plan, while it's 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 because the people sending it can turn a profit even when only a minority of recipients respond, analysts say.
Opponents of the plan complain that those who pay a fee will have guaranteed e-mail delivery, while those who don't are likely to run into increasing problems with timely delivery - because AOL would naturally spend more time and effort looking after its paying customers.
"We're a grassroots organization," said William Green, president of RightMarch.com. "We're not funded by big donors. If we're sending 2 to 3 million e-mails a week, paying a penny per e-mail will price us out."