If you e-mail me in response to this article, chances are you won't hear back. This is not because I'm too lazy to reply. Well, I'm not always too lazy to reply. Mainly it's because I get so much spam these days that survival means fast-deleting anything that looks like junk, which sometimes includes reader e-mail. Like a lot of people, I have passed a threshold in the last year or so: Spam has gone from one of life's little nuisances to a threat to the usefulness of e-mail.
Technologically, no quick fix is in sight. But it's helpful to think about what sort of fix the technologists should be hunting for. The answer, I think, is this: I should have property rights to my e-mail inbox, and I should be able to charge you for admission.
The spam problem is a new instance of a very old and familiar dilemma, which economists call the tragedy of the commons. When any resource is both valuable and freely available, people will tend to overuse it. Moreover, everyone anticipates that everyone else will overuse it, so everyone tries all the harder to get while the getting is good. The result is a run on the resource. The tragedy is that everyone's least-favored outcome—the depletion or exhaustion of the resource—is assured.
Centuries of theory and practice have discovered two effective remedies. One is to appoint a conservator with the unique power to mete out the resource: say, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The other is to create property rights to the resource and allow a market to develop. What people own, they conserve.
In the case of e-mail, the valuable resource at issue is my attention, and the problem is that access to it is essentially free. People who really want to talk to me need to make no more effort than people who merely want to waste my time. The result is a run on my attention. My inbox becomes less like a mailbox and more like a Dumpster, through which I must sift to find items of interest.
Some people have proposed that the market-based solution to spam is to levy a public fee or tax for sending e-mail. In effect, the government would become postmaster general of cyberspace. But Webheads are understandably reluctant to make the government the conservator of e-mail. Government oversight could open the Internet to all kinds of regulation and tempt politicians to milk it for revenues. A bigger objection is that the government is notoriously bad at setting prices. Just imagine the equivalent of a Postal Rate Commission for e-mail. In fact, by definition no one-size-fits-all price could possibly be right, because we all place a different value on our attention. Some people like spam.
Suppose instead that we gave melegally enforceable conservatorship of my mailbox. Then I could sue you for trespassing if you sent e-mails after I told you to stay out. This is not as farfetched as it may sound: Courts and legal scholars are already developing a nascent concept of cyber-trespass. Suing, however, would be massively inefficient, best left as a remedy of last resort. As for the remedy of first resort, I would charge you. Are you a stranger who wants to get into my e-mail inbox? Pay me.
But isn't the great benefit of e-mail that it's free? Not exactly: Spam filters, missed messages, clogged mailboxes, and server overload, to say nothing of odious come-ons, are existing costs for using e-mail, and fast-rising ones. The whole problem is that e-mail is expensive, and the wrong people are paying for it.
The solution is to make spammers pay their targets, instead of forcing the targets to pay for spam. Everyone could charge a different entrance fee for access to his or her inbox. If I like hearing about cheap Viagra, I could charge nothing or almost nothing. The higher my price per e-mail, the less spam I would receive—and a larger portion of the spam that I did get would be targeted, rather than random, so it might actually be interesting. If I set a very high price, I would receive no spam at all. By experimenting, I could find a price that suited me, and I could always adjust it to suit my needs. (Try that with the post office.) Friends and listservs and other "whitelisted" designees, of course, wouldn't have to pay me at all.
Moreover, the system could be self-financing. Some portion of what I charge per incoming e-mail could be siphoned off to pay administrative costs. Furthermore, most people, and probably even most reputable companies, send and receive e-mail in roughly equal quantities. So, after administrative expenses, the costs would net out—except for people who do a lot of sending but not much receiving, namely spammers.
I vetted this idea with a number of cyber-law specialists, and they raised some thorny technical issues, such as who would pay for bounce-backs. There is also the question of how to conduct billions of transactions without gumming up the system. One possible answer is proposed by an economist named David Friedman: reusable cyber-stamps. When I receive e-mail, I would collect the required cyber-postage—assuming, of course, you had attached enough. Unlike conventional stamps, however, these would be reusable. I would turn around and send them out again with my own e-mail.
The pay-me approach is not actually as novel as it may sound. It's a variant of the so-called "digital handshake," but it replaces the handshake with a digital negotiation. In the handshake concept, unsolicited e-mail is answered with a request for a specific response. Only if the right answer is given is the mail delivered. The pay-me approach essentially replaces the question, "Who are you to deserve my attention?" with the question, "How much will you pay for my attention?" My software could be programmed to ask strangers for, say, 1 cent. Your software could be programmed to offer a maximum of, say, half a cent, or 1 cent, or 5 cents. If my demand was under your limit, you would pay and your mail would be delivered. If not, no deal.
If all that sounds hairy, remember that the U.S. financial system settles hundreds of millions of transactions worth something like $3 trillion—more than a quarter of the annual GDP—every day, and no one thinks a thing of it. Once high-volume transactions become routine, the expense of processing them drops to near-triviality. Remember, also, that today's system is anything but free. You are already paying for it, and the costs are going only one way.
So if you want to e-mail me, pay up. That, I guarantee, will get my attention.