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The price of spam

The price of spam

Bill Gates is only half right. Forrester contends ‘electronic postage’ in a credit card industry initiated business model could rid the world of spam.

Bill Gates is “half right” in believing spam could be eradicated in two years through technology and electronic stamps. That is the opinion of Forrester senior analyst James Nail, who reckons the spam problem may be solved in maybe three, not two, years. As for charging the spammer, Nail says there have to be fundamental changes in email infrastructure for ‘postage’ to work as a deterrent. “Right now, no one agrees on the specifications for those changes, and there are active dialogues around a number of different systems. It will take time for the industry to come to consensus, and then the standard must be broadly adopted before it will have any impact.”

Nail says Gates’ proposal requires the consumer to vote that the message is spam. In the short-term, this will get rid of spam covering Viagra and body part enlargement. “But, over a few years, the volume will explode again from legitimate marketers, since email is so inexpensive and we will be back in the spot we are in today with the volume of email being overwhelming.”

The Forrester analyst contends there is an economic, rather than a legal, technical or regulatory answer: “It is time to charge for email, making those who send bulk email pay for the resources their campaigns use.”

The current approaches don’t work, he says, because they put the burden of cost on the recipients – the internet service providers, enterprises and consumers.

The new business model would be similar to Visa – a member-owned association operating the network managing transactions among card issuers, cardholders and merchants.

In the case of email, large and small ISPs, marketers and email marketing services companies would be the member owners. A board would establish the technology standards, set the rate marketers would pay for email, and oversee the registries’ operations.

To determine whom to charge, the industry must adopt a system of secure, verified identities. Those who send huge volumes of email would attach their identity to each message and a central registry would validate for ISPs and companies that the message comes from a legitimate sender.

Killer charges

Just one quarter of US$0.01 per message would crush the spammers’ business model, says Nail. Individuals using email for low volumes of personal correspondence would pay only if they exceeded a “reasonable threshold” – say 1000 messages per month – the same way they pay for additional email storage on MSN or Yahoo.

The benefits are worth the cost, he adds. Hardcore spammers will go out of business because a charge of US$2.50 per thousand messages would add US$2500 to the cost of a one million-message spam. Companies paying to send their email would save money on spam filtering, bandwidth and storage.

Email messages would be more creative, as today’s designers temper their creativity to avoid triggering a spam filter. Marketers will focus on how to design messages offering the greatest usability to the recipient, instead of the lowest likelihood to exceed the spam filter’s threshold.

Nail says his proposal should be acceptable to the public because it allows each email account to send a low quantity of emails each month for free. This amount, 1000 or even 5000, would be too low for spammers but would be comfortable for most individuals.

As for objections small businesses and charitable organisations need more than this, Nail states: “I’d argue that at some volume threshold an organisation needs to pay, just as today a user gets two to four megabytes of storage free, but has to pay if they want more. There’s also no reason a non-profit rate couldn’t be set, or let ISPs compete on the number of free messages they offer to these groups.”

Debbie Mayo-Smith, author of Successful Email Marketing, is not so sure the strategy would work. “As my grandfather used to say, ‘Locks are for honest people.’ Spammers send their spam through other people’s servers. They’ll get around it – instead of sending one million at a time from one spot, they’ll break it down to the consumer minimum.”

Butler Group, meanwhile, says the more sophisticated spammers will utilise malware to control unsecured networks and use these to launch campaigns. The network owner is left to pay the charges.

Mayo-Smith echoes the observation of most – save for the purveyors of spam – about how email got this way: “What a shame that something so wonderful for individuals and businesses alike has to be so tainted!”

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