Recently, Bill Gates claimed the problem of spam, the annoying unsolicited e-mail that congests the Internet, could be solved in the next two years. Some may scoff at this idea, but when one examines the marketplace, Gates’ prediction may even seem conservative. That’s because an old idea is finally getting some new attention.
For years now, the two methods of fighting spam have been attempts to use law or technology. But outlawing spam doesn’t work — spammers just send e-mail under other people’s names, often from jurisdictions overseas. And trying to filter messages based on their content doesn’t work either. Crafty spammers simply change their messages from “Get Viagra” to “Get v1agra” and so on.
The real way to beat spammers is to make them pay.
Perfect in Theory
Since it costs nearly nothing for a spammer to send out millions of e-mails, this creates incentives to send as many messages as possible, especially because response rates are so low. The key question then becomes how to make spammers pay for their follies. One method is called e-stamps.
The e-stamps model works just like it sounds. In order to send mail, the sender would have to attach an electronic stamp; corporations would pay for stamps, and individuals would get them for free. The idea is perfect in theory, but many have attacked it on practical grounds. How would people get stamps, and who would run the system? Would it be hard for consumers to use?
These questions appear to be answered by a new Silicon Valley-based company called Goodmail Systems, which plans to implement an e-stamps-type program through the consumer’s ISP so that the transition will be seamless. One service provider — Yahoo — already has indicated interest in using the system, so time will tell how well it will work. In the beginning, Goodmail says, it will set a default price of 1 U.S. cent to enter a user’s inbox.
Opting Out Through Systems
“We will introduce a new class of e-mail that addresses the root economic causes of spam and restores e-mail to a medium consumers can rely on,” said Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras.
But what about consumers at ISPs who are not part of the stamping system? When they attempt to send e-mail to someone on the system, a message would come back directing them to a page where they can buy a stamp. Not a perfect solution at first, but if the system works, most ISPs will offer the stamps themselves.
The great thing about an e-stamp system is that if a user gets an e-mail he or she doesn’t want, the user can simply click on the opt-out button at the bottom of the message. Unlike current arrangements, the opt-out lists will be enforced because the system, not humans, will enforce it.
Good News for Consumers
This is good news for consumers because they will have more control and will be able to avoid the perpetual false positives associated with current spam filters. The plan is also valuable because its content-neutral nature steers it away from free-speech problems that arise with other solutions.
This is the first time consumers have come close to obtaining a spam solution that effectively implements the pure e-stamps theory that many, including myself, have been advocating for years. If Goodmail and its test-case ISP hold true to the e-stamp model, consumers could very well see a spam-free Internet in the near future.
Legislators itching to pass more spam laws should hold off and let the marketplace deliver the solution.
Sonia Arrison is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.