Column: Maybe Bulk E-Mail's Free Ride Should End

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Internet service providers should seriously consider charging to deliver and accept bulk e-mail.


The idea has been floating around for a while. Most recently, it surfaced on InternetWeek.com in an article outlining a proposal by the president of a small Internet service provider.


"It [spam] could be a legitimate business," said Barry Shein, president of Boston-area ISP The World. "The only way to solve this problem is to create an economy around it. The idea is that you're going to make spammers accountable and create an economy around spam that is also going to be able to control its abuse."


But rather than just charge spammers, why not take it a step further and "create an economy" around all bulk commercial e-mail?


The problem with commercial e-mail is the lack of economic barriers to entry that are in place on other media. Why remove non-responders' names from a list when it costs next to nothing to e-mail them?


However, impose even a small extra charge, and certainly e-mail with subject lines like "would you like a bigger manhood?" and "URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSAL" would begin to disappear as the sleazeballs behind them get priced out of the market. And with the elimination of such offensive clutter, response rates also would certainly rise, ideally making the cost of delivery worthwhile to the marketers who remain.


Maybe I should take a stab at keeping the boss happy here and say that exceptions for riveting trade e-mail newsletters could be made.


Under Shein's proposal, according to InternetWeek.com (Shein did not return a call for comment by deadline), ISPs would approach the major bulk mailers and negotiate rates. The ISPs then would refuse to carry traffic from those who don't pay.


However, there are hurdles.


"There are at least two problems to overcome with Shein's proposal," said one of my more reasonable anti-spammer acquaintances who requested anonymity. "First, it requires cooperation by the major ISPs. And when that happens, guess who will scream 'collusion' and 'restraint of trade' [He's talking about marketers here]? Second, it requires a way to deal with the international ISPs. I still want to receive e-mail from a friend in Hong Kong, but if spammers can get around the bulk e-mail charges by using servers in Hong Kong, they will."


Fair enough.


But does Shein's idea really require ISPs to cooperate with one another? What if AOL simply started charging to carry bulk e-mail traffic? And what if the charges weren't limited to so-called major bulk e-mailers?


For example, a tavern-owner friend of mine who uses AOL recently had a transmission blocked of about 500 e-mails to cigar-smoking patrons who had signed up to be notified of cigar-related events. Once he called AOL and explained the situation, the block was lifted. But what would stop AOL from saying, "Oh, and by the way, Paul, while we value your business and want to continue serving you, from now on we must charge your account $1 per 100 e-mails over 100 per week?" That's one penny each with personal correspondence factored in.


Paul could switch and help clog some other ISP's system. Or he could pay a measly $5 per month to continue to get 30 people in on Monday nights buying overpriced cigars and specialty beer without going through the hassle of switching providers and, moreover, for the right to demand that his e-mail be delivered reliably.


Each ISP could define what is chargeable e-mail and set rates at its discretion. The charges could offset the cost of service enhancements and/or fuel lower rates.


If defining chargeable commercial e-mail is a problem, why not charge to handle any e-mail over a certain volume? That way, ISPs also could charge those who victimize the rest of us with chain-letter hoaxes and jokes and help put an economic governor on that rampant stupidity as well.


And if bulk e-mailers began paying ISPs, they would be transformed from keeping their heads down to avoid anti-spam vigilantes to large clients with all the accompanying leverage.


Imagine the satisfaction of being able to say to the next blacklist-happy, self-superior e-mail administrator, "Listen, I paid to have that e-mail delivered and I want it delivered, or I want my money back. And if you continue to jerk me around, you'll be hearing from my lawyer." Hell, just voyeuristically imagining such a scenario makes me think I might be able to persuade my doctor to eliminate some blood pressure medication.


However, being a technical ignoramus, there must be obvious hurdles to charging for bulk e-mail delivery that I am not seeing. But given the insane patchwork of anti-spam legislation and technology emerging, ISPs charging to handle bulk e-mail is an idea worth exploring.


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