AOL seems to be back tracking a bit on their original proposal. ClickZ reports that the unpaid White List will be kept after all. ClickZ attributes this change to the uproar not from independent Internet folks but instead from a competitor to the company that was going to provide the technology for the paid bulk sender program.

Although the biggest danger has passed for now, the fact that huge corporations like AOL, Yahoo and Gmail control such a huge number of email users combined with the way we talk about spam raises serious questions about how we use the Internet for political work.

Spam has really made a major impact in how we think about corporate intervention in our communications. If spam didn't exist - we'd be up in arms over any attempt by a corporation to filter our mail. Thanks to spam, though, people actually want and expect their email to be filtered and are actually up in arms about getting too much unwanted email, expecting their corporate ISP to take care of it.

Granted spam is a problem - but it's in our interests to keep the bigger picture in mind when we consider solutions to the problem.

Consider: There is no objective definition of spam. The technical word is "Unsolicited Bulk Email." What does unsolicited mean?

If you go to a community meeting and sign in with your email address, are you soliciting email from the group collecting the sign up sheets? What if you signed up at the meeting and you don't start receiving email for another 6 months at which point you've forgotten that you signed up? Many corporate ISP's have a "Report message as SPAM" button - how many of their users really understand what that means? Is a message spam simply because a user identifies it as spam? How many users consider clicking the "Spam" button an easy way to make the message go away, even when they know they signed up for the list but don't know how to unsubscribe or can't be bothered to unsubscribe from it?

Or from an organizers perspective: What if you send a one time mass email to everyone who attended a conference you went to, using the email addresses published by the conference organizers? What if you collect email addresses in your database as part of your normal organizing efforts and periodically want to send mass email to these people about your activities?

According to most corporate approaches to spam - all the examples I've given are considered spam and would be blocked. According to definitions of spam in wide use - political organizing is spamming!