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‘Introduce sanity by making people pay for what they use’
By Barry Shein
August 6, 2003

Vipul Prakash makes many good points. I do, however, take exception to his point eschewing payment systems as one possible response to the problem of spam.

For starters, nothing is free. So, to say that e-mail should remain free is already starting out on the wrong foot. The cost may be built into your monthly service fees, but it’s not free. What spammers are doing is breaking the model that led to those all-you-can-eat pricing models.

Spammers are increasing costs to service providers and end-users, particularly companies who manage their own e-mail. These are costs which, for example, generate Cloudmark’s anti-spam product revenue stream.

It’s wonderful to think that somehow a slice of the pie will be allocated invisibly to spam-fighting while nothing else changes, particularly the underlying e-mail pricing model. But the problem is growing too quickly to rely on such a happy outcome.

Spam is ultimately what is called a “tragedy of the commons”: it is in everyone’s individual interest to take what value they can from the medium, even though if everyone does so the result will be the destruction of the medium itself. Spammers “graze” the uncontrolled resource of electronic mail, and unchecked that’s almost certainly a harbinger of the future for more conventional e-mail advertising. One tried and true way to introduce sanity into such a situation is to introduce the reality of market economics: to make people pay for what they use.

This is not to say that it wouldn’t be reasonable to allocate some free use quota so individuals wouldn’t have to worry about being “on the meter” every time they send an e-mail. But beyond some generous allowance, charges should be incurred to help pay for the resources being used and to inject some reality into decision-making about that usage.

I realize this raises new questions regarding accurate and precise payment systems. This can be a complex subject, and schemes needn’t be entirely automated or simplistic. There exist business models outside of the realm of network resource accounting that solve hard usage problems by a judicious mixture of statistical sampling and reasonable business relationships. Legitimate businesspeople understand what spam is doing to e-mail and, in my experience, are receptive to the prospect of paying something to help civilize the situation, so long as it’s fair.

Dave Crocker’s response

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Tagged: Communications, Business

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