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How can you stop spam? Easy: Pay for the e-mail you send

July 31, 2001 

How much would you pay to do away with spam--the unwanted messages that clog your e-mail box? Would you be willing to pay a penny for every e-mail you send? That's about what I think it would cost to do away with this menace to personal and business communication, but as with any plan there are drawbacks--including what a sender fee might do to AnchorDesk itself.

I am thinking about this because CNET contributor Matt Lake last week wrote a great story on how to avoid getting onto spammers' lists. He was on the radio show last Friday talking about it.

Matt opened several brand-new mailboxes and then did some typical Web activities--one activity per account--to see which got him onto spam lists and how quickly.

THE WINNER? Participating in an AOL chat room. Spammers harvest the lists of chat participants in real time and Matt was getting spam in minutes. Why AOL hasn't put a stop to this I can't explain.

In his story, Matt outlines some of the things people do that get them on spam lists and some of the things you can do to get off them. However, that part is pretty short. Why? Because, bottom line: There is no good way to get off spam lists. On top of that, most of the filtering software available is fairly lame or inconvenient to use.

Regularly changing e-mail addresses, never giving your mail address to anyone you don't know and trust, having separate addresses for activities likely to get you on spam lists, and similar defensive tactics are the best ways to avoid junk e-mail. Also, avoid placing your address on any Web pages, since they are easily harvested by spam robots.

HAVE YOU EVER BOUGHT ANYTHING thanks to spam? Neither have any of the people I've asked. You'd think a low response rate would stop spam--that the spammers would just give up. No, seemingly they just start sending spam offering lists of people to spam. Maybe there really is one born every minute.

The reason tiny response rates don't stop junk e-mail is because it works differently than the good ol' fashioned junk mail delivered by Lance Armstrong's compatriots at the U.S. Postal Service. In the real world, junk mail costs time and money to print and send. It's a reasonably complex process. If you don't get a decent response rate, you'll stop.

Not so online, where the ability to spell (or even use a spellchecker) seems to be well beyond the IQ of some of the spammers whose messages I receive. Online things work just the opposite of the real world. Where junk mail costs money to send via snail mail, the e-mail variety costs money to receive.

THIS DIFFERENCE BETWEEN e-mail and real mail is what makes it attractive to folks like you and me: It's easy to send and doesn't cost anything. In fact, the recipients really pay the cost of the e-mail they receive as part of their monthly connect charges. This same economy is, not surprisingly, why I get so much spam: People can send as much as they want almost for free. Take away this economy and I am betting you could do away with most of the spam we receive.

I've thought about this a great deal and the best solution I see is one you aren't going to like: require e-postage for e-mail. That is, charge people on a per-message basis for the e-mail they send.

This should not be a charge large enough to give people pause, maybe a penny or even a fraction of a cent...just enough to keep people from pushing the button and sending a million "Herbal Viagra" e-mails at a whack. Make the charge high enough and all junk mail and lots of personal/business mail (like all those cc:'s you get in the office) would also go away.

MY BIG BOSS, Mr. Deemer, is probably choking as he reads this, because I am really talking against self-interest here. (Sorry, Pete!) Let's see, we mail about 1.5 million AnchorDesk e-mail newsletters every night, five nights a week. At even a penny each we'd be hitting some fairly significant distribution costs--about $75,000 a week.

What to do with the money? I'd recommend using it to implement network monitoring so that any spam that did get sent could be shut off even before it was delivered. Or it might underwrite free Internet services for consumers and small businesses.

Actually implementing this plan would require some major changes in how the Internet works, so it won't happen immediately. However, there are many other things that need changing, too, so if we put this one on the list maybe it will come true when some future "new" Internet starts to take hold. How will we know when that happens? We'll probably get a piece of spam about it, of course.

Would you be willing to pay a penny for each e-mail you send if it meant never getting spam again? TalkBack to me!


By David Coursey, Executive Editor, AnchorDesk, Copyright © 2001 ZD Inc.

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