Paying for e-mail: An idea whose time has come?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper writes that charging for e-mail may not be so crazy an idea, after all.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
Sometimes, all it takes is someone to speak the unspeakable to force a break with conventional wisdom.

So it was that Bill Gates triggered a firestorm of protest by suggesting that the best way to stem the growth of spam would be to require people to pay money to send e-mail.

Gates--by virtue of his celebrity status--elevated the question to the front pages when he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that a fee-based system could eliminate the spam epidemic within the next couple of years.

The idea of charging to send Internet messages actually has been talked about for quite some time.
That drew a predictable thumbs-down from critics, who said the idea was simply impractical, if not downright antithetical to the libertarian ethos that helped shape the Internet. Well, as a former U.S. President was wont to say, "Let me say this about that."

To be sure, Gates' comments constituted downright heresy. This is the Internet, after all, not Interstate 80, going west. But is the proposal so off-the-wall that it should be dismissed outright?

The idea of charging to send Internet messages has actually been talked about for quite some time. The basic idea is that the current system makes it too easy to spam and that freight charges would deter the scammers who depend on receiving a handful of responses to their mass spam blitzes.

This isn't the only idea under consideration. The Internet Research Task Force is working to come up with a sender notification system that better distinguishes between the senders of legitimate e-mail and spammers. The system would let Web domain owners control how their e-mail suffixes get used. In this way, recipients could determine whether someone was faking their return address. Elsewhere, various filtering and legislation have also been put forward in the last several months.

Pretty cool idea. But as promising as it sounds, sender notification remains a work in progress. It is also unclear whether the technology will work as advertised.

Out of desperation, the question of charging money to send e-mail has now been taken up by the digerati.
As far as filters go, spammers can always ratchet up the volume to try to overwhelm the system. And while antispam legislation is sure to win votes, you can pass the most draconian law imaginable, and it won't have the slightest effect: The bad guys can always relocate to Bimini or beyond.

So, out of desperation, the question of charging money to send e-mail has now been taken up by the digerati. Forrester Research late last year argued that electronic postage had the best chance of stemming spam. "Even one-quarter of 1 cent per message would crush spammers' business model," Forrester wrote. Maybe, maybe not. While that may take care of the fly-by-night operators, what about the big spammers who have the deep pockets to bear the added expense?

Taxes also have a kudzulike knack for climbing. There's no iron-clad guarantee that electronic postage costs would not subsequently spiral. That would only hurt legitimate businesses and individuals--no fault of their own.

In addition, every Internet service provider on Earth would have to comply--hardly a sure bet. If some refused to go along, spammers could simply switch servers and carry on business as usual.

Still, for all its warts, charging might just be the least bad option. I'm not fully convinced. But after weeding out another several hundred organ enlargement come-ons from your in-box each morning, isn't it time to think outside of the box?