November 14, 2003 1:13 PM PST

AOL shifts e-mail graphics policy

In an attempt to cozy up to marketers, America Online is letting some companies sidestep an e-mail control and have pictures show up in the messages they send subscribers.

In the next two weeks, AOL will begin letting companies apply for inclusion on a "white list" that would grant them the privilege of circumventing a default control that automatically disables HTML-encoded images in e-mails. AOL said the initiative is its way of rewarding "good" e-mailers while filtering out messages that contain potentially offensive images.

"This allows their e-mail to go directly through to members and allows members to get the good e-mail that they want to get," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. "This allows us to know which commercial e-mailers are following our guidelines."

AOL introduced the image-control feature was in AOL 9.0 Optimized this summer as a way to fend off visually explicit e-mails--long a gripe among members. The setting only allowed contacts on an AOL member's address book or buddy list to send images, such as photos and other types of graphics.

The setting was part of AOL's attempt to win back subscribers after years of neglecting the service's quality and innovation. AOL had tried to eliminate intrusive advertising in the past by no longer supporting pop-up advertisements on its service.

But e-mail is a popular way for retailers and service providers to inform their customers of sales and new products. AOL has in the past struck deals with third parties to allow them to market to its members. In this case, marketers do not pay AOL, but they have to adhere to rules and pass a series of screening tests to qualify.

For AOL members, the change means a greater likelihood of getting image-laden e-mails from Web sites. Online retailers often e-mail customers notices of sales and new products. Some companies give shoppers a choice of whether they want to enable HTML in their e-mails or receive them as plain text with hyperlinks to a company's Web site.

While the white list punches a hole in AOL's no-images policy, privacy experts see this as a way to filter out the good from the bad.

"I can understand that people may be a little annoyed that their preference is being overridden," said Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer for ePrivacy Group, an antispam company in Philadelphia. "But generally speaking, the sites that one would hope to be added to the white list aren't the sort that were creating the problem in the first place."


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