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Send Out Spam, Pay the Bill

February 23, 2000

ANGUILLA, British West Indies — An IBM researcher is suggesting that the increasing spam problem should be fought by using a combination of encryption and digital cash to guard mailboxes against unwelcome intruders. "My suggestion is that the sender should pay for email. Put economics back in the equation," IBM researcher Kevin McCurley said Wednesday at the Financial Cryptography '00 conference.

Under McCurley's plan, the receiver decides what they want from an unknown person who's sending email. The receiver can require that the message include a first name, or they may ask for a few dollars as compensation, or for a contribution to a specific charity. He also suggested a plan whereby "legitimate" email users can have their address certified as a non-spammer by a company or professional society.

"You should think in terms of recipients' rights," McCurley said.

The idea isn't new. Cypherpunks have long talked about requiring e-cash as a detriment to spammers.

Crypto-buff Adam Back proposed "hashcash," a scheme requiring would-be emailers to perform time-consuming calculations on their computers. The FlyingRat site already uses e-gold to prevent spam from being sent to member accounts.

But as spamming grows more widespread and time becomes more valuable, the idea seems to be gaining some mainstream acceptance.

McCurley's presentation drew enthusiastic applause from conference attendees. He also proposed that the concept be turned into an Internet Engineering Task Force or other open standard.

"That's the only way that it'll actually work [in] an open environment with open standards," McCurley said.

Creating the technology is likely to be easier than upgrading tens of millions of email programs to understand and work with this form of spam prevention.

There are also the many forms of competing digital currency, all of which seem to be incompatible. The plan is also expected to meet complaints that those in well-off countries will require money to read email from a cash-strapped resident of an impoverished country.

But if unsolicited email gets worse, there may be no alternative.

"More and more spam is the only thing that's going to drive this thing to market," McCurley said.

Declan McCullagh, Wired News


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