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Who is reading your mail?
July 2006

If I told you that the Royal Mail were reading all your letters and destroying any that included anything they didn’t like the look of, you’d be justly cross. If I added that they were not seeking your permission for this, wouldn’t stop it if you asked them to, and would not tell you how much, if any, of your post they were destroying or even why they didn’t like it in the first place, you’d be mightily irritated. If I finally told you that as well as charging you a monthly fee to deliver any letters, they were going to start charging the senders of the letters an extra fee in if they wanted to be excluded from this censoring, then you’d seethe, in proper Oldie fashion.

Ridiculous? But that is exactly what AOL, the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP), has done and where they lead, others will follow, believe me. Like all ISP’s they already charge their customers to connect to the Internet and receive their emails, but they have also just started charging people who send emails to AOL customers a fee to guarantee delivery ( As is the way in cyberspace, a website critical of this idea popped up (; irritated, AOL simply started blocking all emails that included a link to that site. At least they told the email senders what had happened (they didn’t have to), and as a result there was a fuss.

AOL rescinded the decision, but not before thousands of AOL customers had failed to receive what might have been perfectly legitimate emails that just happened to include the address that AOL didn’t like. ISPs commonly make these kinds of arbitrary decisions. They are allowed to do it; if you look at the Terms and Conditions of your ISP you will almost certainly find some words allowing them to delete any emails they don’t like the look of, without reference to you.

To be fair, most email blocking is done with the best of intentions, and is not at all sinister. The ISP’s are simply fighting an honest battle against the huge flood of junk emails ("spam") that is washing around in cyberspace. It’s a huge problem: one ISP that I use told me that of the 6.2 million emails that passed through their filtering system last week, less than 10% were proper emails – the rest were spam, or viruses, or both.

The filters that ISP’s use are getting better, but they often pick honest emails and brand them as bad – for example, if you send a round robin email to fifty of your friends, don’t be surprised if some emails never arrive. The filters will have spotted that it is a bulk emailing and assumed it is rubbish.

Most ISP’s see spam as a nuisance; AOL have decided that it is a business opportunity. The deal they now offer will allow senders to pay a toll to bypass all AOL’s filters. AOL say this will improve matters. Older readers may recall Hutber’s law: "Improvement means deterioration." Patrick Hutber was City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, and he realised that whenever a company says it will be improving their services, you can be sure that you will either be getting less service from them, or paying more, or both.

So it is with this AOL scheme, which will also have the bizarre effect of rewarding AOL for providing a bad service. Before now, AOL had a financial incentive to maintain spam filters for all of their customers, and to get it right – it makes good business sense to keep the customers happy. However, once they "improve" matters with a guaranteed-delivery-for-a-price deal, it will pay them to let the "free" service wither, and allow the spam filters to become out of date. This will encourage more companies to fork out the new fee as they get more and more fed up with their emails not getting through.

AOL would thus be faced with a choice between spending money for no return or receiving extra money. Call me a cynic if you like, but I think I know which way they will be inclined to jump. In the mean time, my advice is that you ask your ISP what they are doing with the emails that they reject, and ask to be informed of any that were addressed to you.

If they won’t, or can’t, you might consider changing your ISP to one who takes your email more seriously.

I'm always pleased to hear from readers.