TCS Daily

'I Don't Want Any Spam'

By Sonia Arrison - July 11, 2002 12:00 AM

Many Internet users, especially parents, are concerned about the growing problem of unsolicited commercial e-mail, otherwise known as spam. Legislation and technology are proposed solutions, but they won't be successful. Happily, the problem is easier than it looks when one thinks outside the box.

Senator Conrad Burns (R - Mont.) and other legislators have tried to tackle the issue, but it's obvious that spam cannot be legislated away. U.S. laws are ineffective in controlling those outside the U.S. where much of today's spam originates and spam laws will only be followed by legitimate firms, who are less likely to spam in the first place. Strict laws won't stop seedy characters with frequently changing e-mail addresses from sending inducements to join Nigerian financial scams. And the United States already has anti-fraud laws that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is trying to enforce. FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle has it right when he says that it will take more than law to solve the problem.

Adding to the dilemma is that defining spam is extremely difficult. Broadly speaking, spam is unwanted e-mail, such as a political message from California gubernatorial wannabe Bill Jones or a chain letter threatening bad luck. David Singer, IBM's Distinguished Engineer of Internet Technology summarized this issue nicely when he said, "spam sent to me at home may not be spam if it is sent to my work e-mail."

But spam is a considerable challenge, costing companies millions of dollars in server storage space and lost employee time. Brightmail, a company that makes spam-filtering software, reports that spam counts grew 500 percent over the last year. Spam filters help moderate this burden, but they can't remove all unwanted mail because they don't know all the links between recipient and sender and sometimes they filter e-mail that they shouldn't.

Problems with filters have led to some innovative efforts from the tech community, including recently launched Cloudmark, a peer-to-peer system that allows users to vote on whether an e-mail is spam or not. An interesting idea, but like legislation, it runs into the problem of allowing someone else, (or in this case, many people) to define spam. But all is not lost in the war on unwanted e-mail.

It's still possible to create a system that would stop those pitches for cheap breast enlargements and bizarre outings with barn animals from reaching your e-mail box. All it requires is attention to economics.

Spam is ubiquitous because it gets a free ride. Incentives matter, and that's why the best way to eliminate spam is to create an infrastructure where spammers have to pay for their indiscretions.

Here's how it could work: companies such as Microsoft and PayPal could decide to team up to create a system that allows the user to charge anyone they don't know to send them e-mail.

Family and friends would be put on the "do not charge list" and their e-mails would arrive in the user's in-box for free. But for anyone the user doesn't know, a charge of $.50 (or whatever price the user wanted) could be levied. If, after the payment and the e-mail from the unknown mailer is received, the user decides that they want to communicate with the previously unknown person, they can put them on the free list and give back their money.

Is this a workable system? Microsoft's engineers thought so. Colin Birge, program manager for Microsoft's MS Office group said, "it's an interesting idea. We don't know how PayPal's systems work, but Outlook already includes an extensibility model. It's an idea we can certainly float." And while PayPal is currently barred from talking publicly as part of SEC filings, sources close to the company said that a micropayment system to deal with spam was possible.

The question now becomes one of who should implement this system and why. The answer is Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who are the main economic victims of spam. It clogs their servers and wastes bandwidth. Steve Dougherty, director of systems vendor management at popular ISP Earthlink, said that Earthlink spends more than one million dollars a year fighting spam and that the idea of a spam-costing system, "comes up from time to time as an option." It may be time to pursue that option with more vigor.

"I don't want ANY Spam" is a line from a famous Monty Python skit, but it's also something millions of Americans mutter when they find unwanted offers for investment schemes and other sundry messages in their family's e-mail boxes. It's time to look to the market for ideas, and to deploy economics in the war on spam.

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



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