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AOL's email tax row goes intergalactic

Phasers on stun! Esther Dyson is back

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The wide-ranging coalition that objects to a tax on sending email has a new, and unexpected opponent. One that mere earthlings dare engage at their peril.

It's former "Net Queen", space cadet, and Register reader favorite Esther Dyson, whose latest transmission has been captured, decoded and published by the New York Times.

Esther thinks paying to send email is a great idea.

Why?

Well, as she explained in the Times on Friday, it unleashes the goodness of market forces. And the doubleplus emergent goodness of Darwinian evolution!

But aren't computer communications system supposed to just work? And why do we, the users, have to pay for the broken protocols? (Even the inventor of the SMTP protocol that's used to send the world's email messages says we need to rip these up and start again.)

Instead, AOL and Yahoo! are endorsing a scheme which guarantees to deliver email to their subscribers only if the senders have paid an intermediary of their choice. Which happens to be GoodMail Systems.

Email sent from the rest of the world, which GoodMail considers "uncertified", must therefore risk running through AOL and Yahoo!'s discrimination process. And as this potential profit center for the two net giants takes off, there's no incentive for either company to deliver the "free email" - and every incentive for them to get the world conditioned to paying for guaranteed delivery.

It's as if the police began charging crime victims for the guarantee that they would log and investigate an incident. Do you think the crime figures would begin to rise or fall with the introduction of such an "innovation"?

Of course the utopian ditz doesn't quite see it this way.

Let Esther herself explain.

"I agree that pretty soon sending most e-mail will cost money [er, what? - ed] but I think that's only right. It costs money to guarantee quality and safety. Moreover, I think the market will work, and that it will not shut out deserving senders, if we only let it work freely."

She doesn't mention what choices face say, the rural poor, who suddenly have a new, US-imposed tax to deal with. When you earn on a dollar a day, paying a cent for send is not a trivial amount. (Let's put it this way, when Esther herself earned $10,000 a day for providing vacuities to ignorant dotcom companies, that would have worked out as $100 an email.) She continues:

"In the long run, recipients will be able to use services like Goodmail to set their own prices for receiving mail."

The goodness spreads.

And in a surreal moment that channels the spirit of Marlene Dietrich, Esther reveals that she has her own tariff:

"In my case," she says, "I'd have a list. I'd charge nothing for people I know, 50 cents for anyone new … and $3 for random advertisers. Ex-boyfriends pay $10."

That can only be interpreted as a cruel sideswipe at Bill Ziff, so we shan't dwell on it.

Resistence is futile!

The coalition, assembled by the EFF, is not impressed with Esther's comments.

"Dyson's acknowledgement undermines AOL's PR scheme for its pay-to- send proposal, which centers on convincing the public that their email tax is 'voluntary' and 'nothing will change' for everyday emailers," it responded in a statement.

Dyson stormed back complaining that she'd been misquoted. She said that most of the money raised by the caper would find its way to recipients.

Now to really interesting part - and the show stopping Esther moment you've been waiting for.

The amorality of technology enthusiasts has been discussed a plenty, but rarely their deep misanthropy, and anti-democratic instincts. If you've ever doubted the values of these determinists - whose mystical faith in the market is accompanied by magical incantations of Darwin - here it is.

"I find it ironic that many of the very people who want to teach evolution in the schools (a position I agree with it), want to stop it on the Internet," claimed Esther.

"What shocks me most about the opposition to Goodmail is that people who claim to believe in the free and open Internet, with its welcome attitude to innovation, want to shut down an idea. That's wrong."

No, Esther. Not if it's a bad idea.

There are ways citizens can influence that decision, other than leaving it the magic of the market.

"Trying to engage the public about the real consequences of AOL's plan isn't anti progress," responds the EFF's Cindy Cohn, "it's educating the market. And the market should get a chance to debate whether we want top live in a 'pay to send' world or not." ®

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