Fighting Spam Also Requires Fighting Knee-Jerk Critics

AOL andYahoo will soon roll out a new program to charge advertisers for guaranteed access to users’ e-mail boxes. It’s not the perfect spam-fighting program that some would have hoped for, but those critiquing the plan on free speech and other grounds are out to lunch.

The reason most people’s inboxes are overflowing with nasty bits of unwanted, unsolicited e-mail is because the economics of the entire system encourage it. Economists call the problem the “tragedy of the commons,” which occurs when individuals exploit common resources at the expense of others. That is, spammers send e-mail for free, yet it costs those receiving it billions for network maintenance costs and lost productivity time.

Real Life

E-mail spam is a huge problem, because users have not been able to effectively establish property rights over their inboxes. One of the ways to potentially solve this problem is through an idea called e-stamps: in order to send mail, a sender would have to attach an electronic stamp.

In an ideal world, corporations and other people unknown to the receiver would pay for stamps, but individuals and corporations who know each other could issue the encrypted stamps for communication between themselves for free.

That is the theory. What’s happening in real life is a first step toward fixing the problem.

Silicon Valley-based Goodmail systems developed the program that AOL and Yahoo plan to use. By charging a penny or less for each e-mail, Goodmail thinks it will make businesses happy by making sure their messages don’t get caught in spam filters — and it will make users happy by shrinking spam numbers and making it less likely that a customer will get scammed by e-mails such as fake bank messages asking for passwords. It sounds like a win-win situation to most people, but it’s got the anti-corporate lobby and potential corporate casualties up in arms.

“This isn’t really an anti-spam measure as much as a ‘pay to speak’ e-mail measure,” wrote Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That seems a strange way to view the issue. The requirement of a stamp on snail mail, for example, has never been construed as restriction on speech.

Customer’s Choice

In this case, no one is forcing anyone to use the system. If the consumer doesn’t like Goodmail there are lots of other e-mail providers. There are also multiple other ways to communicate. For instance, Gmail just announced it was integrating instant messaging chat functionality with its e-mail client, a clue that e-mail might be a dying method of communication.

Cohn goes on to say that “Spoofing the appearance of Goodmail certification to end users should not be much of a problem, and all of the encryption in the world won’t fix that.” Here, she seems to be saying that the system won’t work. If that’s the case, why is she so worried that it may infringe speech?

Then there are corporations that are simply worried that Goodmail’s system will cost them money. Eric Thomas, inventor of LISTSERV and CEO of L-soft, probably had the most extreme reaction, insinuating in a press release that Goodmail’s system might cause harm to those with cancer as they might somehow miss crucial e-mails about their disease.

L’Esprit d’Internet

Of course, there was also a reaction from those in the anti-property community who claim that trying to fix the spam problem though economics offends the “spirit of the Internet.” If the spirit of the ‘Net means that individual users’ e-mail boxes are abused and huge amounts of their time and money wasted, I have some bad news for the self-appointed Internet spirit-keepers: No one likes your spirit, and there’s a plot afoot to exorcise it.

This is not, as some portray it, an introduction of economics into the e-mail system. Economics are already in place, facilitating spam and costing people time and money. E-stamps represent a quest for better economics, and those who believe they create free speech problems or violate some special spirit of the ‘Net need to re-examine their arguments.

The system that AOL and Yahoo are implementing is not the idealized e-stamp plan that many Netizens have been longing for, but it is a start. How this experiment plays out will offer clues to other providers who are considering similar measures.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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