Friday, January 19, 2007

A Radical Solution to Spam and More

The Red Tape Chronicles on MSNBC, one of my favorite columns, had a piece on the resurgence of spam e-mail. The discussions that followed focused on technological solutions, ranging from better spam filters to including Verisign certificates, to ISP monitoring. There are some more radical solutions that haven't been considered yet though. One of my pet ideas, one that isn't originally mine but came from hearing an interview with one of the early architects of e-mail, was to have users pay per mail sent.

GASP! Wouldn't that go against the very spirit of e-mail and our Internet age? Maybe so, but the reality is that history tells us free resources are the most abused (look at the global warming issue - since nobody pays economically in the near term for emission of greenhouse gases, there is little incentive for a modified behavior) If every e-mail required a penny to transmit, to be shared among the ISPs that participate in the transmission (just like usage fees in gasoline pipelines), a legitimate user feels little financial burden - even if he/she sends 10 e-mails a day, that's about $37 a year, small compared to the saved productivity of not dealing with spam. But for a spammer, the economics change dramatically - a spammer's relying on sending 10,000 e-mails a day maybe, so now his operating costs go from nothing to about $37,000 a day - a dealbreaker! The ISPs for their part promise to invest the money in better spam filtration techniques (maybe even charge ISPs a fraction of a penny for every spam that makes it through?)

As an additional bonus, we might all get fewer silly forwards. I remember in India, text messaging (SMS as it is known) used to be free, but the volume of SMSs were HUGE due to people forwarding all kinds of nonsense, and this caused a rather large drain on productivity. The implementation of a nominal fee (not large enough, in my opinion) have reduced unnecessary mass message volumes.

Of course, this isn't a complete solution. One of the complicating factors in recent times is that a lot of spam comes from hijacked computers, i.e. computers that have been attacked by malicious programs. In these areas, a technological solution is still needed. But maybe here the e-mail usage fees can be invested in better security protocols across the board?

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