The Answer to Stopping Spam Is in Your Wallet

Recently, Bill Gates claimed the problem of spam, the annoying unsolicited e-mail that congests the Internet, could be solved in the next two years. Some may scoff at this idea, but when one examines the marketplace, Gates’ prediction may even seem conservative. That’s because an old idea is finally getting some new attention.

For years now, the two methods of fighting spam have been attempts to use law or technology. But outlawing spam doesn’t work — spammers just send e-mail under other people’s names, often from jurisdictions overseas. And trying to filter messages based on their content doesn’t work either. Crafty spammers simply change their messages from “Get Viagra” to “Get v1agra” and so on.

The real way to beat spammers is to make them pay.

Perfect in Theory

Since it costs nearly nothing for a spammer to send out millions of e-mails, this creates incentives to send as many messages as possible, especially because response rates are so low. The key question then becomes how to make spammers pay for their follies. One method is called e-stamps.

The e-stamps model works just like it sounds. In order to send mail, the sender would have to attach an electronic stamp; corporations would pay for stamps, and individuals would get them for free. The idea is perfect in theory, but many have attacked it on practical grounds. How would people get stamps, and who would run the system? Would it be hard for consumers to use?

These questions appear to be answered by a new Silicon Valley-based company called Goodmail Systems, which plans to implement an e-stamps-type program through the consumer’s ISP so that the transition will be seamless. One service provider — Yahoo — already has indicated interest in using the system, so time will tell how well it will work. In the beginning, Goodmail says, it will set a default price of 1 U.S. cent to enter a user’s inbox.

Opting Out Through Systems

“We will introduce a new class of e-mail that addresses the root economic causes of spam and restores e-mail to a medium consumers can rely on,” said Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras.

But what about consumers at ISPs who are not part of the stamping system? When they attempt to send e-mail to someone on the system, a message would come back directing them to a page where they can buy a stamp. Not a perfect solution at first, but if the system works, most ISPs will offer the stamps themselves.

The great thing about an e-stamp system is that if a user gets an e-mail he or she doesn’t want, the user can simply click on the opt-out button at the bottom of the message. Unlike current arrangements, the opt-out lists will be enforced because the system, not humans, will enforce it.

Good News for Consumers

This is good news for consumers because they will have more control and will be able to avoid the perpetual false positives associated with current spam filters. The plan is also valuable because its content-neutral nature steers it away from free-speech problems that arise with other solutions.

This is the first time consumers have come close to obtaining a spam solution that effectively implements the pure e-stamps theory that many, including myself, have been advocating for years. If Goodmail and its test-case ISP hold true to the e-stamp model, consumers could very well see a spam-free Internet in the near future.

Legislators itching to pass more spam laws should hold off and let the marketplace deliver the solution.

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


  • I wouldn’t mind spam so much if *I* was paid for receiving it. Instead of paying the ISP for spam, pay the recipients. If you pay the ISP, they will want to encourage the spammers to send even more spam since they would then make money on every spam email.
    I can see it now "Send out 10,000,000 spam emails and get a 25% discount!"

  • Sorry, Sonia. You are not even close to being right. E-stamps are not the way to go because they allow the ISP to maintain control over who can communicate with you and who can’t. It would be like the consumer letting the phone company put an operator between your phone and anyone who calls you and forcing them to pay to get to you. There are names for these types of gangs that require payments on a regular basis…and they are not the way we want to go with email!
    There is a better solution around the corner and it’s a lot simpler. It just requires a little imagination and the hard-nosed approach of letting the consumer retain all control. Watch carefully as we roll this out over the next year. You will be not only pleasantly surprised, but then you will see how wrong you are.

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