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April 14, 2006

Did AOL get caught censoring emails?

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Poor AOL. They just can’t get away from the drama over their certified email program. This time they’re facing attacks from non-profit group MoveOn.org who claim AOL began censoring emails that contained links to petition site DearAOL.com. After MoveOn.org made their initial claims, more than 150 people who signed a petition for AOL tried sending messages and received an error message that alerted them their email ‘failed permanently’ and would not be delivered. AOL claimed a glitch in the system, but non-profits cried foul.

DearAOL.com is an online petition that protests AOL’s plans to begin charging an email tax to route email around its spam filters. The online petition has been signed by over 40,000 people so far.

Turning the situation into a complete PR fiasco, upon hearing the news, news site CNet sent out a test email to AOL with the DearAOL.com URL inside it and found it too came back undelivered. Well, that doesn’t look good, does it?

When MoveOn.org realized their emails were not be delivered they sent out notices to everyone on its email list claiming that AOL was purposely censoring the protest emails. Taking full advantage, they pointed towards Wednesday’s computer glitch as even more evidence that AOL does not have its customers’ best interests in mind and should not be allowed to tax emails.

AOL says the blockage was due to a ‘glitch’ that incorrectly labeled several of the sites as being spammers. An AOL exec said there was ‘absolutely no commonality’ among the 50 or so sites that were affected. Well, except that a number of the affected emails contained the DearAOL URL. AOL execs pointed they have delivered ‘millions and millions’ of emails correctly. Yes, yes you have. But that doesn’t seem to be the issue here.

And while I love conspiracy theories just as much as the next paranoid blogger, I just can’t believe that AOL was purposely trying to censor emails. First, the petition being circulated has been making the rounds for two months now. It doesn’t seem viable that AOL has all of sudden decided to start blocking it. Secondly, it’s not as if the ‘blocked’ emails would go unnoticed. It would be ridiculous to think AOL purposely censored the protest-related emails and didn’t think it would get traced back to them.

With the amount of email being sent over AOL, you’re bound to have a few bouncebacks. Does it look bad that some of the bounced emails were related to MoveOn.org’s campaign to stop AOL’s CertifiedEmail program? Yes. But what about the emails that got bounced back that didn’t have the nefarious URL inside? I think Wednesday’s glitch was just that. A glitch. With some really bad timing.

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