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Fighting spam for a good cause

Two IBM researchers are proposing a new method of canning spam that would force unfamiliar senders to donate to charity if they want to reach you.

Two IBM researchers are proposing a new method of fighting spam that would force unfamiliar senders to donate to charity if they want to reach you.

Under the proposal, concocted by IBM researchers Scott Fahlman and Mark Wegman, e-mail senders who haven't been cleared by a recipient would receive a message that their mail did not go through. They would then be instructed that they could reach the intended recipient if they were to pay a third-party site a few cents for a "charity stamp." The money paid to the third-party site, which could range from a penny to a quarter, would be donated to a charity of the sender's choice.

E-mail bearing the charity stamp could then reach the recipient.

"What we're proposing is to change the rules of e-mail just a little bit to make spam go away," Fahlman said. "The day you install this is the day you get your last piece of free spam."

Fahlman said the software to channel unfamiliar senders to charity sites, which is only theoretical right now, would probably be under the control of the sender and would sit between a person's mail server and mail client. He also said Internet service providers could use the program as a marketing tool to convince consumers they're serious about controlling spam.

The plan combines the popular concept of a so-called white list--which only allows e-mails through from senders on a predetermined list--and the emerging paid-to-send model, which is currently resurfacing in some anti-spam crowds.

AT&T researchers recently proposed another pay-per-message model, and an Australian entrepreneur announced a service last month called that lets people set a contact fee to reach them via e-mail.

Technologists have long toyed with the idea of pay-per-message plans as a way to control spam, but most say the idea is too unwieldy to implement.

Privacy expert Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer for Philadelphia-based consultancy the EPrivacy Group, said the new rash of pay-per-message proposals shows how desperate people really are to control spam. He said such plans in general would be difficult to engineer, confusing because not everyone using the Internet pays in dollars, and potential magnets for fraud.

"I have yet to see one that is either workable or would solve more problems than it creates," he said.

What's more, he worries that charging to send messages would ruin the e-mail system's status as a forum for freewheeling ideas. "It certainly would destroy the Internet's ability to let communities grow and to let people build relationships and interact with one another," he said.

But Fahlman, the IBM researcher, said e-mail recipients are entitled to take control of their in-box. "I believe we all have an absolute right to read whatever we want," he said. "I don't care if it's some politicians looking for votes or some Nigerian looking for bank transfers. If I want to see it, I'll go find it."