Using economics to stop spam is a great idea that’s getting a very bad rap. The problem lies in the stump speeches of a major software executive and the press coverage of some very prestigious newspapers.
The method getting a lot of news coverage is to charge for email through some form of digital postage: a penny, a nickel, or an amount chosen by the recipient. The effect, say proponents, is that spammers will run when it gets too expensive to blast half the world’s population with offers to improve a body part or refinance a home.
In the broadest sense, the idea is right on target. The only reason spam exists is because you can get a mailing list and send 300 million emails for next to nothing. The ISPs are left to pay for replicating your message and jamming it down the throats of unwilling service providers and subscribers. The problem is so bad and technology is so inadequate at stopping it, now even the makers of that technology say we have to make spammers pay.
But the answer is not to charge you or me or Aunt Nancy for personal email messages, or even to charge legitimate marketers for the simple act of sending something that—in retrospect—you actually appreciate receiving. Instead, a properly implemented solution will leave email as simple and as free as it is today. Free for everyone: for you, for Aunt Nancy, for Amazon when it confirms an order, and for a marketer whose respect for a mailing list is reflected in very careful targeting. But not for any sender whose email irked the recipient.
Sound a bit far-fetched? You can’t help but wonder how a program or Internet service could distinguish between spam and desirable mail when you consider that few people even agree on the definition of spam. Worse still is the fact that content filters act with mindless automation. You don’t want to throw up barriers to a long lost college roommate, a new customer, or even your phone bill.
Right now, most ISPs and enterprises “protect” their users by filtering. Filtering is a process of inspection and identification. Filters try to ascertain if a message is unsolicited, commercial or sent in bulk. Some analyze sender dynamics. For example, was mail routed through China? Or is a server in the header also on a list of “evil doers”?
But no filter can maintain and distribute the copious database needed to track all senders and their clever methods in real time. Even if it could, the basic premise does not target spam with precision. The ideal solution intercepts only messages that an individual recipient would find undesirable, were he to read it. Only then, will the war against spam be won.
Sender at Risk to the Rescue
We all desire messages with one or more of the characteristics that filters use to identify spam. That’s why the definition of spam should be shifted away from mortgages and Viagra to the underlying problem:
- Spam is undesirable mail
- Undesirable mail is a product of poor targeting
- Poor targeting is facilitated by economic incentive
- Solution: Create an economic disincentive
The trick is to force unrecognized senders to risk something of value and then leave the decision to seize that something to each individual recipient—even after the fact.
Some have argued that spam will dry up if senders are identified or at least forced to use genuine and traceable email addresses. The phone company uses such a “Caller ID” method today. They routinely intercept messages that lack Caller ID for recipients who choose to screen calls. But the phone number of an unrecognized caller says nothing about the relevance of the message content or the reputation of the person calling. The call could be from a relative in a hospital or from a marketer with no better demographic data then a phone book. The only reason we are not swamped by thousands of untargeted phone calls each day is because of the cost and effort associated with each call.
But suppose, instead, the intercept message said this:
“Your Caller ID is not recognized by the party you have dialed. If you complete the call and the recipient finds your contact undesirable, they may press *77 after hanging up. This will add a $2 fee to your phone bill.”
In the above scenario, think of *77 as an interrupt penalty. In effect, it says “I found the nature of your content to be either irritating, harassing or irrelevant, and so I am going to prod you to either clean up your contact list or deliver better content next time.” In our trials of the very same system applied to email, recipients rarely use their power to penalize senders. That’s because the real filtering takes place in the mind (and the pocketbook) of the sender.
Spammers send their drudge to audiences that are both large and poorly targeted. They would never enter into such a bargain. The only challenge is to ensure that everyone you already know is exempted and that the methods available for senders to put up money are trivial and trusted. This will facilitate rapid adoption.
Most importantly, a “sender-at-risk” model facilitates commerce. It allows marketers to reach you if they are willing to put up money to back their claim to individual relevancy.
Enhancing the Model
Imagine further, that the amount of liability reflected within a message is chosen by the recipient, based on how much they value their own time. During a quiet evening with the family, they can raise the bar to strangers to, say, $2, but during their regular day, they can lower it to $0.15. This refinement requires participation by the caller’s phone company. But the mechanism is largely in place today. With 900 numbers, phone companies routinely assess the caller a fee determined by the recipient. Fairness is ensured by requiring that the cost is described before charges begin.
In this day of very cheap communications, an email system (or a telephone system) can be greatly enhanced by the addition of this simple rules-based approach. E-mail remains free to senders but not to spammers. No laws are necessary to require that senders place cash at risk. Recipients need only refuse contact from unrecognized senders who fail to express the requisite digital credential within their message.
Someday soon, every message between strangers—fax, text message, and even pop-up—will convey the voluntary liability of the sender to each intended recipient. Senders who refuse to embed this respect within messages to strangers risk something greater than cash. They’ll risk being blocked entirely.
Ellery Davies is the pen name for the founder and CEO of a major email service. He is also a speaker, publisher, TV commentator, and is chief editor for awildduck.com. He has started four technology firms.