Spam Wars

Ever since large numbers of people realized that the Internet offers a way to communicate instantly and at zero marginal cost, there has been a problem called "spam." Some people get very heated about it and want the government to "do something" to impair free speech. I'm one of those who have always disagreed.

Of course, I too am a victim of what is properly called "UCE": Unsolicited Commercial Email. It arrives by the bucketful each morning. But I keep cool, for three reasons:

1. Freedom is two-sided. If our ubiquitous Nigerian friend overloaded with millions of dollars he wants me to help him spend is silenced by Law, one day I might be silenced by Law.

2. Not often, but occasionally I see something useful in UCE. It would be a shame to miss it.

3. Spam is not nearly as hard to handle as it appears at first. Two simple techniques are (a) line it all up in a list (ISPs often do that for us online, or if downloaded by such software as Eudora simply open the Inbox) and highlight for deletion all items with an unknown sender and/or an uninteresting subject. Then: zap. Gone. Also (b) periodically, change one's e-mail address and convey the new one only to those from whom you're happy to hear. That reduces the list size to zero, after which it may build up again and the cycle repeats.

Five minutes a day, max; a small cost for the priceless facility of free communication.

To the modest extent that spam remains a problem, it results from a massive failure of the ISP industry to take rational action; and that lack of business imagination results from the collectivist culture that surrounds us all. Like automata, they are wedded to the ideal of "free" email, and if a problem arises will go running to Nanny to fix it. So far, remarkably, Nanny has left us largely alone; long may it stay so. What "rational action," then, do I propose?

It's really simple. I've conveyed it to all ISPs I've had to deal with, but have been so far ignored; perhaps you'll suggest it to yours, and have better luck. It is to form a trade agreement (or even to act without one, leading the market in the expectation that rivals will follow) to charge a monthly subscription with two tiers.

Tier #1 would provide (say) 10,000 outgoing emails and the other usual benefits of connecting to the Net, for the basic charge of (say) $10 a month.

Tier #2 would add (say) $1 to the monthly billing for every extra 1,000 outgoing emails, or part thereof, that the customer chooses to send. UCE mailers would then have a different cost structure to consider: our earnest Nigerian could still mail out a million messages, but instead of it costing him nothing (or next to it), it would cost him (10 + 990 =) $1,000. That may still be a good bargain, depending on how many suckers he stirs to action; but he will now need to take steps (in order to maximize profit) to refine his proposal or (here's the key, and I promise this is how all bulk mailers think) refine his list so that he writes only to the (say) 100,000 who have shown previously they are likely to be responsive. List refinement is hornbook wisdom in direct snail-mail; it could easily be so in direct email too, if only the ISP industry would think like businessmen instead of like public utilities--and in this example it would cut spam by 90%.

Trial and error in the marketplace would quickly reveal what rates per thousand messages would settle down to furnish a range of competing prices, and the great majority of spam would then be history; it is a problem now only because it is too cheap. A possible objection to this solution is that there might always be a rogue ISP that continued to offer single tier pricing and so churned out billions and billions of spamails; I doubt it. First, to the extent that it happened, the rogue ISP 's would see a steep increase in workload with only a tiny rise in revenues, as spammers concentrated on their servers; and second, nothing (I understand) stops any ISP refusing to accept all mail from rogue ISPs. The market would, in other words, provide its own discipline.

Instead of this rather obvious free-market idea, ISPs today are emulating government by building a complex superstructure of regulation in order to solve a problem of their own making. Just last month I was hit by a scandalous small-n nanny called "Spamalert"; when I emailed a follow-up to some prospects for a service I offer who had all requested information, Spamalert somehow intervened and refused to deliver my mail! Notice: this was not spam, not unsolicited--on the contrary, it was explicitly requested. But because Yahoo and Hotmail and AOL (and possibly other ISPs) had unleashed Spamalert to obstruct the mail, my enquirers were not hearing from me--to their loss and mine. Was it their "fault"? Did they fail to place my e-mail address on a "white list"? Not according to the first I telephoned. She had never heard of Spamalert and had no idea what was happening.

Naturally, a facility that prevents someone receiving e-mail from any who are not on his own "permitted list" could be a useful product in the marketplace. I would not buy it--occasionally, I see something useful on the spam list, and would in any case hate to miss something interesting from a reader here, for example--but power to the elbow of all who do make that choice. But Yahoo, Hotmail and AOL are thrusting this filter on their clients before those clients understand the choice! - with a potentially devastating effect on freedom of Internet speech.

The spam epidemic is caused by government not directly, but indirectly: it has monopolized education for seven generations and thereby created a collectivist culture, so that creative solutions no longer appear in time even from players in the marketplace. It's part of the dolorous secondary effect of allowing government to continue in existence.

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