AOL and Yahoo are planning to begin charging what amounts to postage for those sending multiple email messages to their subscribers. They're positioning it as an anti-spam measure, but it will also have hamper distribution of free information by small and non-profit publishers.

AOL and Yahoo are among the world's largest provider of email accounts. Google, which operates the fast-growing Gmail service, and Microsoft, which operates Hotmail, have not announced any plans to levy charges on those sending multiple messages to their subscribers.

AOL and Yahoo say the charge will amount to a penny or less per email. Senders will also have to promise to send only to people who have asked to receive their messages.

The new program will supposedly help reduce junk mail, scams, phishing expeditions and other annoying and dangerous Web plagues.

Although details of the companies' plans were not released, The New York Times reported that AOL will still accept email from senders who have not paid but will not guarantee that their mail doesn't get caught in spam filters.

Mail that comes from addresses users have added to their AOL address book will be delivered normally.

Critics Warn of Backlash

Critics say the companies run the risk of alienating both their subscribers and the companies and institutions that send bulk emails. Many publishers and organizations send large amounts of legitimate email and might urge their readers to switch to Google or Microsoft email or other services that don't levy a fee on senders.

It's not only mass emailings that would be affected by the system. Order confirmations, boarding passes and other individualized emails from addresses that send large amounts of email would be treated as trash under the new system unless the fee was paid.

AOL and Yahoo are working with Goodmail Systems to implement the paid email program. Goodmail, of Mountain View, Calif., said it will charge from 1/4 cent to 1 cent per message, giving the biggest discounts to the biggest mailers.

Although it is being presented as a tool to fight spam, many critics see the initiative as a money-making ploy.

Spam has leveled off in recent years as legal penalties have gotten tougher and, more significantly, as Internet service providers and large corporations have developed blacklists that identify and block suspected spam.

In fact, AOL already imposes complex procedures on those sending emails to large numbers of AOL subscribers. The restrictions are an administrative headache that have added a new layer of expense to organizations that have come to rely on email to communicate with their members and associates.

Readers' Responsibilities

A particular annoyance to legitimate publishers and organizations is the large number of Internet users who sign up to receive emails, then forget they signed up and complain about what they incorrectly describe as unsolicited mail.

Many users are also unwilling to take the time to manage their email subscriptions properly. Instead of reading the "unsubscribe" directions that all legitimate publishers include on their emails, they complain to their ISP, claiming they were not able to cancel their subscription.

"Irresponsible readers are a big problem for legitimate operators," said one Internet publisher who asked not to be identified. "Readers who receive valuable information completely free of charge need to take a little time to uphold their end of the bargain by reading and following the instructions."