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Charge e-mailers, but keep pipeline open

A lot of the companies involved in our online experiences must be running short on pocket change this month, because so many of them have been doing the equivalent of looking under the sofa cushions for quarters.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A lot of the companies involved in our online experiences must be running short on pocket change this month, because so many of them have been doing the equivalent of looking under the sofa cushions for quarters. To be exact, they're looking under each other's sofa cushions.

Executives at telecom giants such as AT&T and Verizon Communications are talking up the idea of inviting popular Web sites and services to pay extra for better access to their lines -- and some are going further, suggesting that they would demand compensation from the likes of Google and Yahoo for all the bits they send down their lines. Yahoo and America Online, meanwhile, are rolling out plans to charge companies that send large quantities of e-mail to their users.

Those proposed tolls and fees are not the sort that consumers would pay . At first, and maybe for good, the fees would not inflate or deflate the monthly telecom bill at all.

But we should still worry about such fees -- in particular, those that would affect the basic operation of the Internet.

It comes down to notions of ownership and boundaries: A company has every right to treat its mail server as its own territory, to bar some from accessing it or to charge others for that access. But the same principle doesn't quite apply to the issue of accessing a larger piece of the company's total Internet pipeline.

That's because in only the first case do you have a problem of trespassing that requires putting up gates or levying tolls.

E-mail is unique among the Internet's core applications in that it comes unsolicited. You don't get to choose whose mail will land in your inbox. As a result, it's the most abused Internet utility. Companies such as AOL, AT&T, Comcast, Google, Verizon and Yahoo spend vast sums of money to receive and sort out messages that, in most cases, their subscribers never asked for and never wanted.

The cost of inaction isn't just a glut of ads for drugs, porn and get-rich-quick cons, but the real risk of losing the ability to employ e-mail for any productive or worthwhile use.

Internet service providers have taken a variety of measures to try to deal with that, such as automated filtering of incoming mail, combined with an outright refusal to accept mail from sites on blacklists of known or suspected spammers.

The restrictions can easily go too far. For example, a few years back Verizon's spam-blocking system started rejecting mail from entire countries. But few people seriously challenge an Internet service provider's right to do what it feels necessary to attack this problem, especially since laws banning spam have done so little historically.

AOL's and Yahoo's proposal -- both are inviting bulk senders such as banks and Web retailers to pay a fraction of a cent to ensure that their messages are delivered on time and intact -- is not a revolutionary change in e-mail. Researchers have thought about systems like that for years.

Processing time tax
For example, in 2003, Microsoft proposed that bulk mail be controlled by requiring each sender to pay a small tax in terms of processing time, not money.

But when some of the largest, most deeply entrenched Internet service providers in the United States alternate between griping about how other firms sponge off their bandwidth and suggesting that they'd merely give Web sites the chance to buy higher-priority access, we have a different situation.

The first idea, as articulated by Verizon's deputy general counsel, John Thorne, this week -- that a company like Google has been "enjoying a free lunch" by not paying any share of Verizon's costs -- is transparently ridiculous.

Google and all the other high-traffic sites aren't getting anything free. They pay -- heavily -- for bandwidth at their end. Google is not some unemployed slacker borrowing the neighbor's open wireless network.

Second, these mainstream Internet service providers should think about what, exactly, their customers are going online for in the first place. To use the great search engine Verizon's developed? To get directions and satellite photos using AT&T's brilliant mapping site? To buy songs at BellSouth's wildly popular music-download store?

Oh, wait: None of those things exist!

It's possible that a major Internet service provider could find itself getting squeezed on bandwidth costs. But nobody's stopping them from the simple remedy already available to them: Charge customers a higher subscription fee, or impose usage quotas like those of the DirecWay satellite service. (Either step would have an especially persuasive effect on the biggest bandwidth hogs: people downloading porn and using peer-to-peer software to grab music and movies.)

Charge for better delivery
The second notion -- in which Internet service providers would charge Web sites for better delivery of their data -- may not be ridiculous per se, but it is a serious departure from the Internet's traditional openness. And it would be open to abuse without clear ground rules. But companies like Verizon and BellSouth won't answer some basic questions: Would they disclose which sites are paying these business-class fares? Would they let any site pay for better access, or only those they like?

They will gladly talk about how they want the flexibility to dream up new business models (as BellSouth and Verizon executives did during a panel discussion at a Capitol Hill conference on Wednesday). Fine. But as long as AT&T, Verizon and their ilk seem to be having so much trouble getting customers connected and keeping then contented, let's broaden this discussion of new economic models.

Here's one question to ponder: When an Internet service provider makes you wait weeks to get your DSL turned on, allows service to drop out for no apparent reason, then puts you on hold until an overworked tech-support rep dishes out incorrect advice, doesn't the customer deserve some compensation, as well?