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Column: Charging E-Mailers Isn’t Easy, But It’s Not Impossible

Well-reasoned objections arrived quickly after a column two weeks ago in which I advocated exploring the idea of Internet service providers charging bulk e-mailers to process their mail. Some counterpoints are worth a look.

My arguments were straightforward enough: Spam results from e-mail being so cheap to use. There is no financial incentive for even household-name companies to clean their lists of non-responders. Start charging bulk e-mailers and, voila, the flood of spam is reduced drastically.

“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,” I said.

Simple, right? Only in Magill’s E-Mail Marketing Fantasy Land, apparently.

“Paying for e-mail delivery is an old idea, and the ‘dot-com’ history is littered with corpses of companies who tried to invent ways of efficiently managing large volumes of small payments … and they didn’t even try to graft that onto a fundamental redesign of e-mail architecture,” said Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer at privacy consultancy ePrivacyGroup, Philadelphia. “Like many anti-spam solutions, including ‘ADV’ subject lines, double opt-in with a lime twist, do-not-e-mail lists and industry self-regulation … paid delivery sounds simple, but is far from it.”

My charging scheme, Everett-Church said, “would quickly turn into a morass of blocked e-mail, frantic calls to the ISP’s sales department to bicker over who qualifies. But more than that, think of what consumers would say when they learned that their ISP was not only blocking and making their Cat Fanciers mailing list pay up, but that their ISP is also taking money from credit card companies to stuff 57 offers a month into their e-mail box instead of their postal mail box. Once an ISP was known as the ISP that gets paid to give you spam, you’d see a mass exodus.”

Unless, of course, the charging ISP’s bulk-mail-funded service enhancements were far more enticing than services delivered by those who weren’t charging.

ISPs already arbitrarily block Cat Fanciers e-mail with filters, and since Cat Fanciers doesn’t pay for delivery, it has no leverage. Paying would be Cat Fanciers’ one sure way to ensure delivery.

As for the credit-card argument, most consumers are long familiar with tolerating sponsors’ messages in return for cheaper, free or enhanced services. It is not a given that people would leave an ISP en masse for receiving advertising with their mail, especially since it would be easy to designate a folder solely for such e-mail that consumers could check, or mass delete, at their discretion.

Everett-Church continued:

“Every small mailing list, such as the handful of e-mail discussion lists I run (an Internet law discussion list for law professors and lawyers, a discussion list affiliated with an NPR show about computers, etc.), that grew beyond a certain threshold would find itself having to charge users and negotiate with dozens or hundreds of ISPs. That would effectively kill off the natural growth of online communities.”

Setting rates is certainly a hurdle — one proposed solution is for the ISPs to form a nonprofit for the purpose — but charging heavy users of e-mail would not kill online communities. It would, however, stop them from growing beyond a certain point unless money began to change hands. If a community grows beyond a certain volume, maybe participants should pay.

If bulk e-mailers were charged, perhaps my fantasy football league, for example, would have cleaned my address off its player update list after the first request when the season ended, rather than on the third request months later. Just extrapolate that thought a little.

E-mail’s current rules — that permission-based e-mail blasts get a free ride no matter how much bandwidth they use — are clearly failing. The reason: Permission, and punishment for those who don’t have it, is arbitrary. However, if money were the arbiter of whether permission had been granted, anti-spam vigilantes would have to find something else to do.

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