Sunday, February 05, 2006

Postage Due

A recent article in the New York Times detailed AOL’s and Yahoo’s plans to charge a quarter cent for companies sending their subscribers’ e-mail. Their objective is to dramatically cut down on the spam and phishing that ends up in our mailboxes. The scheme will allow those that pay postage for their message to receive priority and bypass black-lists and spam filters. In addition, addresses in user’s address books will not be subject to paying postage and receive the same service.

There are many reasons why this scheme is not a solution to the spam problem. First, spammers will still send messages. Some will pay the fee. It is still cheaper than direct mail. Second, the ingenious spammers will use zombie machines to send messages to recipients in user’s address books. Third, it will impede senders of legitimate e-mail. Under this scheme, if I met someone in a business meeting and I wanted to send them a follow up message, I would have to ask them to add me to their address book or pay the quarter cent. Not much, but it is an additional expense I thought came with my Internet service. Corporate users will just consider this the cost of doing business, but personal users will find paying postage burdensome. I suppose that it will put and end to those pesky chain letters that people are always sending me. Proponents claim postage is just the solution that we need to reduce spam to a trickle.

What is puzzling is that these same proponents are opponents to the RBOC charging for tiered service. According to the NYT article, AOL and Yahoo are positioning the postage as a superior class of service just like the RBOC. Where is the opposition to this scheme? Tom Evslin, ex-executive of AT&T’s Worldnet service, is against it for one. His argument that it will adversely impact subscription services and legitimate e-commerce is extremely compelling and lucid. I have no problem if service providers want to charge extra for a service like certified mail that validates and guarantees the identity of the user as long as it does not impact how I send mail today. Will it stop spam? No way.

The widespread use of digital signatures is another effective way to prevent spam, but the cost of a digital signature has to come down to under $5 per year before we see widespread use. You can buy a domain name for $1.99, why not a digital signature? What I would like to know is how AOL and Yahoo will make the service any different than using a digital signature? It seems to me that they work about the same way. Why not credit senders a quarter cent until they pay for the digital signature. That way there would be a cap on how much user’s are charged. Once everyone has a digital signature, the e-mail client would verify the message header against the digital signature. If they did not match, then it would be filed as junk mail. Other solutions like Sender ID or DomainKeys are effective at preventing spam and they do not require user intervention.

Spamming is an arms race. Legislating it away did not solve the problem. Spammers either ignore the laws or moved off shore. Charging will not solve it. They will hijack machines or continue to use best effort and hope they get through. There are even ways around Sender ID or DomainKeys, but these solutions are more effective than blocking messages that do not pay a toll. So go ahead and charge for a higher class of e-mail. If users want to only accept mail from certified senders and people in their address book then that is their prerogative. Anything less is creating a walled garden and against the spirit of the Internet.

Tags: AOL , Yahoo, e-mail, Tom Evslin