SAN JOSE, Calif. - America Online is vowing to carry out its plans to institute fees for mass senders of e-mail, despite protests from groups representing 15 million people that claim the move will stifle communications instead of merely halting spam.
Political group MoveOn.org Civic Action, the AFL-CIO labor union and other organizations have criticized the service, which will charge senders a fee to route their messages directly to AOL users' mailboxes without first passing through AOL junk mail filters.
AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., contends the system will help it reduce spam because only legitimate senders of mass e-mail are likely to pony up the fee - ranging from 1/4 cent to 1 cent per message. But critics say the system will end up blocking many e-mails from groups that can't afford the fee.
AOL said it was undeterred and planned to offer the service within the next 30 days.
"Mark it on your calendars," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said.
The controversy is erupting as Internet users try to balance the convenience and speed of e-mail with the ease in which it can be abused by junk mailers and "phishers," criminals who forge messages in an attempt to get sensitive information from unwitting recipients.
Some analysts said that AOL subscribers' disdain for spam and fraud is likely to outweigh whatever sympathy they would have for those criticizing AOL's plans.
"Right now e-mail providers do a lousy job of keeping unwanted content from users," said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Marquette University and the former general counsel of Epinions.com. "Users will be thrilled to see a lot of junk taken out of their inboxes, even at the expense of legitimate messages."
Eli Pariser, MoveOn's executive director, said paying a fee to AOL could add significant costs to the weekly dispatch his group sends, "hundreds of thousands" of which go to AOL subscribers. During a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, he stopped short of calling for a boycott of AOL, but said such a move remains a possibility.
Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, another critic, said his "several thousand members" were prepared to boycott if AOL "pulls the trigger" on the service.
The effectiveness of the campaign against the new service will depend on how AOL subscribers react to it and exactly how it works, analysts said.
"If they (system filters) start interfering with the delivery of legitimate mail, I don't think AOL subscribers are going to tolerate it," said David Sorkin of the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
He discounted the likelihood of legal action against AOL. Courts have ruled that an e-mail provider is not a government body and therefore can't be sued for violating First Amendment rights of free speech.