Thursday, December 28, 2006

Some explanations of how email postage should work


Already, people have pointed out to me that most of us pay to send email. Well, in a sense, we do (although some ISPs are making everything free now for limited service). But what I am questioning here is the “unlimited mileage” idea that has been common for fifteen years. (Even in the car rental business the idea has been challenged.)

There was controversy early in 2006 when AOL and Yahoo! announced that they would charge a small fee to preferred and approved emailers to avoid their spam filters. There are various news stories, such as Saul Hansell "Postage Is Due for Companies Sending Email", The New York Times, Feb 5, 2005, here (may need NYT subscription). There has been a lot of criticism of charging for email, to the effect that it would put some business models out to pasture.

Vadim Makarov has an interesting essay softening the proposal to charge for email. ISPs would offer subscribers the option of receiving only postage-due email only. The proposal does comport with libertarian and free-market ideas. Escrow companies (to borrow from the mortgage industry) would keep track of mailers and bill them, and charges would be accounted for by passing tokens with the emails. From my memory of telecommunications courses at Northern Virginia Community College in the 90s, I sort of picture-in-mind, (computer textbook) James Martin style, how this might work. (Good essay question for a final exam!) Generally, ordinary people as ISP subscribers would have the option of receiving all email with customary spam filters, and the SMTP protocol could still be used. Still, this model would impact certain kinds of marketing businesses adversely. Presumably, a business running its own server without an ISP (or using a dedicated host rather than shared hosting) could negotiated with an escrow company on its own. A good question would be how network neutrality legislation could impact such a scheme.

Ultimately, cultural values will enter into the debate on what to do about this, and these values can lead to a new generation of telecommunications and intellectual property law. I do believe that the current situation threatens the ability of “smallfry” like me to have our own independent domains and become the target of spoofers (although escrow companies in the model above would have to be able to recognize spoofing, as would ISPs in some proposals for charging senders). The small business publishing model, with passive search engine “advertising” sends unwanted material to no one, but offends some people because it seems like an evasion of normal business (or even family) accountability. On the other hand, a business that bombards the public with ads offends a lot of people with the idea of unwanted hucksterism, let alone the bandwidth and nuisance costs. If you need to become a salesman, “always be closing.”

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