Spam and e-mail payments
Posted by aogTuesday, 10 June 2003 at 17:44 TrackBack Ping URL
Unsolicited e-mail and what to do about it is the meme du jour and I always like to be part of a crowd. Through some link chain I ended up at a post at the Gweilo Diaries about this subject. There is some argument for legislation but I don't see that having any real effect. It's mostly foreign or boiler room type stuff so there'll never be anyone you can actually catch for it. I've always liked the idea of postage, but one of the commentors claims that this just won't without massive federal regulation that would be worse than the current problem. I find that argument very unpersuasive. The error seems to be the assumption that the government would issue and collect the postage. Clearly that's not going to work. But there are many alternative scenarios that don't involve any government action.

The first one would be that AOL announces the following:

  1. AOL is adopting a postage system involving BigBankCorp.
  2. AOL users can declare that any delivered mail must have postage, which is collected by AOL for the user (minus some small vigorish, say 10%). Mail without postage is silently discarded.
  3. AOL users can exempt AOL in general or particular e-mail addresses in specific from postage requirements.
AOL would make a little profit and provide a real service differentiator. People who didn't like it wouldn't be inconvenienced. Your friends don't have to pay. Wouldn't you be tempted to sign up?
Comments — Formatting by Textile
Pixy Misa Tuesday, 10 June 2003 at 19:53

And now the universal email registry is in the hands of private business. I accept that this is better than being in government hands, but still not good.

Anyway, that was just one of the problems involved.

If AOL start charging people to send them email, the immediate response will be not to send email to AOL. If they accept email without postage and allow users to whitelist it, that’s what everyone will do. Of course, you can whitelist now, so nothing will have changed. It’s exactly the same as saying “everything is spam except AOL and my whitelist”, only now you also have a complicated and expensive payment system that no-one uses.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 10 June 2003 at 21:00

Mail to or from AOL is already in the hands of private business so there’s not much change on that score.

I see your point, but it would depend on how easy it is for a non-AOL person to send postage e-mail. If were hooked in with PayPal or something similar it would have a chance. The key difference would be that people who cared could break through the spam barriers while making it prohibitive for spam generators to do so.

I think it’s possible to bootstrap something like this, if a big enough fish starts. There’s no fundamental problem, it’s a matter of infrastructure and chicken & egg problems.

Pixy Misa Wednesday, 11 June 2003 at 04:19

There are probably over a million email servers in the world. You’d have to update every single one. Or if you push the responsibility back to the user, every user in the world would have to update their email client, and sign up for an account to pay for their email.

It takes away one of the primary advantages of email - its minute cost - and imposes a huge administrative burden.

And it inverts the cost/benefit comparison - I’m paying money so that you don’t get spammed. Hey, I don’t have a spam problem.

And people who don’t want to pay for email will just use other methods to send their messages - including things that look exactly like email but are called something else. And then those alternatives will get spammed too. (Actually, I expect that anyone who tries to implement fees for email will get slammed so hard by their customers that they’ll just drop it.)

Spam is possible because email is free. But email is wonderful largely because it is free. We should be looking to solutions to spam - legislative, administrative and technical - that safeguard rather than eliminate the benefits of email.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 11 June 2003 at 20:56

I think we disagree on what the transaction costs of such a system would be. I think you’re greatly overestimating the adminstrative and financial burdens. If each e-mail cost 1¢ or even 1/10 ¢ I doubt most people would notice the cost. It could easily be folded into the subscriptions fees already paid by every user of e-mail. As for updating e-mail clients, really, how many of those are they? Outlook, Eudora, Hotmail, Yahoo?

I favor the postage idea for exactly the reason you state here, that without something like that any channel is going to get jammed. Only by imposing some cost can that be ameloriated. However, I think it’s quite possible to set a cost that’s almost unnoticeable by normal people but prohibitively expensive for spammers. So I don’t see postage as sacrificing that which makes e-mail valuable.

I think that the biggest problem will be the bootstrapping problem. What we may see is it first imposed on corporate e-mail.

I doubt that any legislation will make a difference. There is the possibility of a technical solution but that would require upgrading tens of millions of mail servers :-)

Personally, I could basically eliminate spam I get with little effort if my mail client would allow me to use regular expressions to filter to and from addresses. But that’s not really an option for most people.

End of Discussion