The egalitarian world of the Internet faced a major new challenge Sunday with plans from two of the largest email providers to begin charging fees for speedier delivery.
At a time of intense debate about the prospect of a two-tier internet, America Online and Yahoo say they intend to introduce a system that would guarantee speedier delivery to companies that pay between 0.25 and one US cent (0.15p to 0.5p) for each message. The Internet service providers would still accept email from senders who do not pay for preferential treatment, but the paid messages would bypass spam filters and other barriers which strip off pictures and other images to land more quickly in in-boxes.
The Internet firms say the new system would make it easier in an era of spam and phishing (Internet fraud) and identity theft for genuine companies to reach their customers. "The last time I checked, the postal service has a very similar system to provide different options," Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesman, told the New York Times.
However, the notion of a premium delivery service on the Internet has been resisted by advocates of "net neutrality", the principle under which data has been disseminated without discrimination or preference ever since the birth of the world wide web.
In addition, some business analysts predict a backlash against AOL and Yahoo from email users angry at not receiving their email after the introduction of pay-for-delivery services.
The debate on the future of the web promises to intensify in the coming months as Congress takes its first steps towards the first major update of telecommunications legislation since the birth of the Internet. Internet content providers are already under fire from telecommunications firms, who are seeking to ensure that their profits - as the providers of the pipeline - keep pace with the Internet's expansion into entertainment and commerce.
The New York Times reported that AOL will launch its premium delivery service within the next two months by recruiting a California company, Goodmail Systems, to administer the service. According to the newspaper, Goodmail would screen the mail to identify the sender.
Yahoo has yet to enter into a formal arrangement for premium delivery.
Messages from subscribers to AOL's paid-for service would be delivered directly to AOL mailboxes. Messages from senders who have not paid will be treated as suspicious and sent to a spam folder - unless the sender is already archived in the recipient's address book.
Subscribers to premium delivery would promise to email only those people who have agreed to receive their services.
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