Im incredulous at some of the criticism Im hearing of AOL and Yahoos decision to replace some of their whitelist with Goodmails service. Most of it reflects simple misunderstanding and a naive desire to believe the worst of big companies.
Goodmail is an accreditation service, in other words a service that vouches for the sender of the message, certifying that they are who they say they are and that their practices conform to a set of standards for good behavior.
Encrypted tokens are included with the message, and custom software in the mail client confirms the validity of the tokens and the message, thus confirming that the messages are valid CertifiedEmail.
Goodmail is not the first accreditation service; BondedSender has been around for years; it works on a bond principle rather than on per-message fees, and lacks the visual cue for the recipient that Goodmail has.
Misinformation abounds: Recipients of “CertifiedEmail,” the messages in question, pay nothing for receiving them. The cost is borne by the sender.
Users who wish to send mail to systems, such as AOL, that support Goodmail dont have to use Goodmail to send it.
Such mail will go through conventional filtering software, user blacklists; there is a chance that it will get blocked for the wrong reasons (for example, it will generate a false positive), but that was true in the pre-Goodmail days, so nothing has been lost.
Heres another important point: CertifiedEmail is not supposed to diminish the amount of spam. Saying that it wont is like saying it wont solve global warming; its not supposed to.
What its supposed to do is to get a senders mail through to the user without impediments from anti-spam infrastructure and with an enhanced degree of confidence for the recipient. Its an anti-spam solution for senders, not for recipients.
The confidence thing is not just Goodmail marketing-speak. As a user, I would view CertifiedEmail in a different light than other mail. I absolutely would trust it more, not that I would necessarily want to receive it.
If I got a certified e-mail from a vendor I didnt want to deal with, I would feel OK about clicking the unsubscribe link.
In fact, Goodmail is planning a CertifiedUnsubscribe feature whereby they would act as an intermediary for recipients to remove them from lists. Whats not to like?
Whats So Good About
What kind of confidence can you have in a sender that sends CertifiedMail?
Goodmail doesnt just take your money and send your mail; you have to qualify:
- You must have been in business for at least one year
- You must have a business headquarters in the United States or Canada
- You must send your e-mails from a dedicated IP address, even if sending them through a third-party service provider, and you must have at least a six-month history of sending mail from that address
- Your sending IP addresses must have a low complaint rate relative to senders in general to Goodmails ISP partners (Clearly Goodmail works with its ISP partners to keep up to date.)
- You must comply with Goodmails Acceptable Use and Security Policy (here in PDF form) and agree to the Token Purchase Agreement.
Goodmail actually confirms all these claims. And it tracks the complaint levels to make sure senders are living up to their obligations, or at least they claim they will; well see what actually happens.
Theres nothing (that I can see) in Goodmails rules that prohibit the content that we find offensive in spam, like pornography.
But Goodmail would eliminate unsolicited porn-spam (which, for most of us, is all porn-spam).
In fact, its hard to see any of the senders of the low-brow bulk of spam getting qualified through Goodmail, and its hard to imagine them being willing to pay the cost of sending the mail.
How much does it actually cost? Goodmail says it has no final rate card, but we can expect the cost to be in the neighborhood of one-fourth of a cent per message.
Because phishing is the hot scare these days, Goodmail also is anxious to mention that banks and other phishing targets are good candidates, but its only a partial solution for them.
Its true that a recipient of a CertifiedEmail from a bank can act on it with confidence. But when the phishing message comes in, the user needs to notice that its not a CertifiedEmail, and thats another matter. Phishing is really a separate problem with different solutions.
There is a theoretical next level to this; if sender policies to certify all mail to a particular class of recipient were known, then filters could look for any uncertified messages apparently from that sender and block it. This could be a difficult task, and Im not sure anyones actually trying it now.
Once again, Goodmail is not really supposed to address the spam problem.
The only real hope for fighting spam and other mail-based abuse, including phishing, is a global system of SMTP authentication—something I used to be excited about.
While Ive gotten pessimistic about it, work continues on it. SMTP authentication isnt a complete solution; one of the ways to address the holes in authentication is with accreditation systems, which tell recipients that the sender is not only who they say they are but are vouched for by someone with a reputation of their own at stake.
Far from being something to regret, cost for sending messages is a desirable thing. In fact, if it could be made universal we would all be better off, although it would require a robust user authentication system.
If doing so means abandoning the ideal early days of a free Internet open to abuse by the most amoral people out there, then I say bring on the unfree future.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at [email protected]