Spam has been on the menu in California of late. Yesterday the state Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the case which Intel had brought against a former employee, Ken Hamidi, for trespass, of all things, because he had sent tens of thousands of e-mails to current Intel employees, ripping the company. The court majority found for the defendant, saying that his mass mailings were an exercise of his First Amendment rights. The majority opinion, written by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdeger, did leave open the possibility that ISP's could sue spammers for trespass, though. So, essentially, this was a victory for free speech, but neither a victory nor a defeat for spammers.
Another California contretemps about junk e-mail is being played out in the state legislature, where the stronger of two proposed bills regulating the activity has died in committee and the weaker of the two has been endorsed by Microsoft. Of course, this has led to harsh words. I won't quote them here, as I consider the invective and dire warnings flowing from both camps to be pretty much nothing but the usual political spam which citizens of Democratic societies have always endured whenever all the politicians are wrong. I don't believe that either bill would be adequate to deal with the problem of spam. I think the solution will have to come from an approach quite unlike those which have been proposed in our legislative halls thus far. I am neither a fan nor a die-hard enemy of neo-conservative economic theories. I am pragmatic about them. Most of the time, I'm unimpressed, but once in a while, I think that the ideas of George Gilder and his ilk can be useful. After long consideration, I've decided that the most practical way to deal with spam is to attempt a market-based solution.
Spam has grown abundant because spam is cost-effective, and spam is cost-effective because it is virtually free. To be sure, spammers must invest in a computer, and must pay for access to the Internet, and probably pay something for their mailing lists, and must invest labor in writing the messages and sending them out, but compared to the costs of sending bulk advertising through the U.S. Postal Service, the costs of e-mail are next to nothing. But suppose that it cost money to send e-mail? Business would be forced to use it much more sparingly. The more costly it became, the more sparingly they would use it. If it were about as expensive as physical bulk mail, it would be about as common as physical bulk mail. As an e-mail recipient, I could easily live with that.
Since charging people to send e-mail would not be based on the actual (and negligible) costs of the activity, the revenue would be almost entirely profit. The question then is who collects that money? I'd say it should go to the person most inconvenienced by spam; the recipient. Of course, we're not all going to start our own little electronic postal services, making our own digital stamps and selling them to all the people who send us e-mail. The logical way to do it would be to set up some sort of account for each subscriber to an Internet or e-mail service, to be managed by the service provider. So, for example, every time I send out an e-mail, my ISP would make a record of it. (Well, they already do, so this shouldn't be difficult.) Each of the e-mails I sent would be a debit against my account. (Let's make the cost ten cents, just to keep the numbers round.) Each time I received an e-mail, my account would be credited by ten cents. At the end of the month, my account would be totaled up. If it was in debt, the amount would be added to my Internet service bill. If I had a credit, it would be deducted from my bill. All the ISP's and EMSP's would transfer credits back and forth, to be distributed among their subscribers. Those who had sent a great deal more mail than they had received (i.e. spammers) would have a big bill to pay. Just about everyone else would get a substantial discount on their Internet service. This, of course, is just the bare-bones theory about how it would work.
In practice, there would have to be a bit more flexibility. I'm certainly not going to be able to charge the sender of free newsletters to which I subscribe ten cents for each of their mailings. They'd kick me off their list. Neither would I want to charge my friends for their letters (though I can't be sure they wouldn't want to charge me for the stuff I send them.) I would also not want to charge LJ for sending notifications of comments in my journal or replies to my comments. So there would have to be some means by which a sender's ISP could be immediately notified that a particular piece of mail was being accepted without charge, and the debit to their account would be automatically removed. Undoubtedly, there are many ways of dealing with this which I, with my low GQ (Geek Quotient), know nothing about. I leave the myriad details of the system to those qualified to work them out.
But the end result of such a system should be to diminish the amount of spam tremendously. Just as many businesses find it cost-effective to solicit by physical bulk mail, many would continue to solicit by e-mail, but for the recipient, going to the trouble of deleting those remaining pieces of spam in which we had no interest would be a much more pleasant task if we knew that the labor was helping to pay for our Internet service.
As a point of historical fact, mail has long been used to subsidize other activities, and junk mail has long subsidized other mail in the postal systems of the United States and some other nations. The American government has used mail contracts to subsidize the development of the railroads, steamship lines, airlines, and a host of other useful services. Until the Department of the Post Office was abolished and replaced by the semi-public U.S. Postal Service in the 1970's, bulk mail provided such a heavy subsidy for other classes of mail that the cost of postage stamps in the United States was far lower than in any other country. At that time, either a change in regulations or a court decision (I can't remember which) ended the government monopoly on junk mail and allowed private companies to deliver advertising to people's doors (though they couldn't use the mail box -- they used to hang plastic bags full of the stuff on doorknobs.) After this, the Postal Service had to lower the price of bulk mail postage, in order to remain competitive with these private companies and preserve the economies of scale which the delivery of mass advertising provided to their system. Naturally, the price of first class stamps had to be greatly increased in order to restore the lost revenue, and the cost of magazine subscriptions (which had also been heavily subsidized by bulk mail revenues) went up considerably as well. Bulk mail still provides an indirect subsidy for other classes of mail, simply by improving those economies of scale. Without it, we'd probably be paying upwards of a dollar for a first class stamp.
I think it would be interesting to see the results of a plan in which spam subsidized our Internet service in this way. It might bring online many people who would otherwise be unwilling to pay the going rate, and accelerate the move to high-speed access by paying part of everyone's costs. After all, even at a price as low as ten cents per spam, a person would need to receive only about four pieces a day to pay the entire cost of an economy dial-up service. I know that I get about that much physical junk mail each day, and the companies sending it are paying, all told, (including paper costs, printing, envelope stuffing, etc.) considerably more than ten cents for each piece.
So, back to the legislature, because, while I'm sure such a system could be set up by the ISP's acting together, they are unlikely to do so voluntarily, not least because there is no legal framework for doing this sort of thing, and certainly no precedent. Thus, it would likely require some sort of legislation (preferably at the Federal level) either enabling or requiring the ISP's (and e-mail users) to participate in the system. Once established, I suspect that it would be fairly easy to maintain and police, by the ISP's themselves, with a minimum of oversight from a government agency such as the FCC or the Interstate Commerce Commission. (That does still exist, doesn't it? The current administration has been dismantling and shifting about government agencies so rapidly, I'm often not sure anymore.) A debate in Congress, and hearings by a Congressional committee, would give everyone involved a chance to make their desires known, including the spammers, and I'm sure that some sort of compromise acceptable to everyone could be reached. Spam would still exist, but we would not be drowning in it. And the so far mostly half-assed attempts to deal with the problem which the private sector has tried on its own could be laid to their much deserved rest.
This last factor is the one which currently irritates me the most. I've been fairly careful about letting my main e-mail address get out, and thus have kept my spam to a minimum. I do have a couple of online accounts which collect spam, though, and one of them, at Lycos, collects the stuff so fast that more of it often arrives even as I'm deleting what's already there. They have spam-catching software at Lycos, but it only catches about half the stuff, and the rest must be deleted from the inbox itself. Furthermore, the software was catching mail I had requested, and putting it in the bulk mail folder, and I had to reconfigure it to pass that mail to the inbox. So far, I've never seen a spam catching program that works well.
Worse than this, about two months ago my ISP began blocking all e-mail from LiveJournal, and, after losing a number of pieces, I had to change my address to one of those online boxes, which I find annoying and inconvenient to use. This decision made by the ISP was intended to control spam, but it was done without notice and without the permission of their subscribers and, in spite of many attempts to have the service restored, I have had no response from my ISP. (Can you imagine the howls of protest that would ensue, were the U.S. Postal Service to begin refusing legitimate mail from particular addresses, without the permission of the recipients? Private e-mail service providers are now doing this all the time, and getting away with it.) I'm going to have to change service providers, because of an ill-advised, badly done attempt to deal with the problem of spam. This is the sort of thing that will most likely continue until a comprehensive solution to the problem is in place.
The idea of a market-based solution to spamming undoubtedly needs a lot of work before it will become usable, but I've yet to see any other proposal or technology that would provide a workable solution. I'm sure that there are other people who have thought of this idea, but I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere, and I doubt that any legislatures have considered it. If they had, we would probably have heard something about it. I'd really like to see this idea discussed by people in positions of power, both in government and in the industry. I think it deserves consideration. Maybe I'll take a leaf from Ken Hamidi's book, now that it's legal, and spam the hell out of everybody concerned until they do something about it.