Kilroy Was Here
February 10, 2003
Stamp Out Spam!
Dear Yahoo (and Hotmail and MSN and AOL),
Your free email services have been a God-send to many people on the Internet. Now people can have a single email account for personal use that they can check from anywhere. It's helped me out. My father, brother, and sister all use your services to send pictures of my nephew to me, or let me know how my uncle is doing. You should be proud; it's a good service you provide.
Unfortunately, as James Gleick notes in the yesterday's NY Times Magazine:
Early Internet users reacted so angrily to commercial mass mailings that fake return addresses became a necessity. America Online and other large service providers began closing accounts used for spam. The next big step -- indispensable to the spam epidemic -- was the rise of free mail services: Hotmail, now owned by Microsoft, and Yahoo. Two features of the modern Internet (both more or less accidental) make spamming easy: service providers desperate for market share at all costs; and an architecture of relatively open and insecure mail gateways. Together these enable hit-and-run e-mailers to create quick, disposable, false identities.
And I'm sure you're team of bright people have been thinking about how to resolve this issue. I've seen places that try to prevent the automatic creation of these free accounts, and I'm sure that does some good, though it's probably a little while coming, and I'm sure there might be a way for spammers to prevent it.
But I found the germ of an idea in this same article that may help you and help us. James Gleick reports:
E-mail marketers, from the sleazy to the near-legitimate, defend their behavior by citing postal junk mail and unsolicited telemarketing. These irritate consumers but are tolerated, up to a point. Spam is different. It is intrusive because, in the nature of e-mail, it arrives round the clock, demanding attention. It lacks even the modest checks and balances of traditional marketing: to print letters and send them through the post costs money; likewise to make telephone calls. A direct mailer can't afford a pitch so shabby and fruitless that it will produce a one-in-a-thousand rate of return. A spammer can, because sending a million more copies is practically free. [emphasis mine]
So here's my idea germ, ready to infect your brain. My friend AOL, and Yahoo, and MSN, and Hotmail, charge people to send mail. Receiving mail can still be free, but when you send, you have to pay.
You don't have to charge all mail. Say the first 25 letters a day go for free. But after that, you have to pay. The same way that direct-mail marketers have to pay. You can make it easy on folks. From 25-100 letters a day, have that cost 1 cent per letter. Or a buck to get your extra hundred letters out. After that, have the prices go up exponentially. $2 for the next 100. $4 for the next one hundred.
Make it economically disadvantageous for spammers to use Hotmail and AOL and Yahoo and MSN to send spam.
Otherwise, you may find your free services no longer worth the trouble. From that same NY Times article:
People get frustrated and overcompensate, putting all of hotmail.com and yahoo.com and aol.com on their blacklists. ''Am I likely to miss important e-mail?'' writes Michael Fraase, a Minnesota Web consultant who goes to these extremes. ''Probably, but I have no way of knowing. Unfortunately the spam problem has become so bad that it's on the verge of rendering e-mail useless.''
And if no one reads any mail from the free services, then why have the free services?
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