The concept has been discussed in technology circles for the better part of a decade, but Sydney resident Bernard Palmer, 59, has decided to try to turn the concept into a business. "Spammers aren't going to be sending many spams to you if you charge them 50 cents," Palmer said. "A spam would cost them $2 million."
Palmer's service, which he plans to announce on Thursday, is called CashRamSpam.com. After people pay $36 with a credit card to sign up for a CashRamSpam account, users may set their contact fee to be anywhere from a few pennies to as high as they think anyone would be willing to pay.
Some antispam services try to use text or numerals embedded in graphic images to discern whether the sender is a human, while others rely on "whitelists" of approved correspondents, pattern-matching to flag suspect messages, or verification. The process can be problematic: On Tuesday, a coalition compiling reports of legitimate e-mail accidentally snared by spam traps.
At least in its current form, CashRamSpam is more of a "proof of concept" than it is a robust antispam solution. Anyone who wishes to contact a CashRamSpam customer must purchase an account themselves first, there is no provision to permit friends or colleagues, and the system does not permit legitimate mailing lists to which users voluntarily subscribe to bypass the payment process. CashRamSpam keeps 10 percent of a user's contact fee as its payment.
When someone tries to contact a CashRamSpam customer, a message is automatically returned saying: "We regret your message cannot be delivered using ordinary e-mail because the receiver has a CashRamSpam account...If you want to succeed in reaching this receiver please register at www.cashramspam.com and resend the message from there."
Brad Templeton, who wrote an influential essay around 1995 about charging for e-mail, says those shortcomings could doom the concept.
Templeton, who is also chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says he no longer supports the idea of charging for e-mail. "I think it's a bad idea in principle," Templeton said. "We're putting an artificial cost on communication, free expression. It would have a chilling effect on speech if it were widespread. It shouldn't cost you money to talk to someone for no other reason than to cost your money. You have a right to demand that people pay your money for your attention, but it's overall not a good idea."
Palmer says he's not worried by the criticism. "If you wanted to e-mail them one time, it's a lot of money," Palmer said about the cost to set up an account. "But if you're going to use the program for your main e-mail system, it's relatively cheap to start off with. You're getting the benefit of no spam. How many systems can say that? Can any system out there besides mine say they have no spam?"
A 1997 patent granted in the United States to Todd Sundsted covers some uses of filtering e-mail through "an attached electronic stamp." Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, recently published a paper titled, "Selling interrupt rights: A way to control unwanted e-mail and telephone calls."
Palmer also hopes to convince advertisers and marketers to contact his users--and pay for their attention. As a test, he's offering to pay CashRamSpam users to read a petition against drug wars.