E-mail was the internet’s original killer app – the service that spurred the multitudes to go online. Now, it may turn into a very different kind of killer app – the one that kills the traditional internet. In an article in the New York Times (reprinted by CNet), Saul Hansell reports that email giants AOL and Yahoo “are about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered.” The tariff will, the companies argue, make spam easier to identify and manage. The companies also, as Hansell notes, “stand to earn millions of dollars a year from the system if it is widely adopted.”
The tiered system raises a much bigger issue, of course. By drawing a commercial distinction between how different types of digital content are treated, the system would seem to be the thin edge of a wedge that could utimately destroy the “network neutrality” that has defined the internet up to now. As Hansell explains, “the move to create what is essentially a preferred class of e-mail is a major change in the economics of the Internet.” If AOL proves the viability of creating a tiered pricing system for email, would that provide its parent, Time-Warner, with a model and a precedent for introducing a broader tiered system for delivering internet content through its big cable business?
This move shows how difficult it is becoming to see the internet in the black-and-white terms of the past. Whether it’s the censoring of digits or the pricing of digits, we’re now moving into a grey area, and that’s where the future of the net, as a commercial, social and technological force, will be determined.