The Problem with Email is That It's Free

Yeah, I know, free is always supposed to be better.  But the problem of spam is caused entirely by its being free.   Here is an example:

According to the indictments, between 2009 and 2012 Nguyen and Vu hacked at least eight email service providers -- the companies that collect your data under slightly more legitimate circumstances -- to steal marketing data containing over a billion email addresses. After that, they worked with Da Silva to profit from the addresses by sending spam with affiliate links for a company he controlled,

At least according to the DoJ, all of that work netted around $2 million in affiliate marketing fees.

We don't have any idea how many emails they sent to each of these billion addresses.  But let's say they sent 10 spams to each (probably a low guess).  That is 10 billion spam emails for a net revenue of $2 million, or around $.0002 per email sent in revenue.

Long ago I proposed that (and I am not sure how to do this technically) emails should cost $0.001, or a tenth of a cent, to send.  For you and I, say if we sent 200 emails a day (an email copied to 5 people would be 5 emails for this purpose) it would cost us 20 cents a day or about $75 a year, not much more than we pay for security software and updates.  But if you could make it work, spam would be reduced drastically.  No way there is any profit in sending an email for $.001 for an expected return of $.0002.

I have no idea in the current structure of the Internet how one would even do this.  The charge would have to come from the receiving end, somehow refusing to deliver it if it does not get payment information.  However, anyone who is going to steal a billion email addresses could likely hack the payment system.

I was going to call this tragedy of the commons, but that is not really quite right.  Tragedy of the commons is sort of related to free public resources, but is more of an issue of lack of property rights than of the zero price.


  1. roystgnr:

    Like with encrypting email, the technical problems are much easier than the social problems.

    You could set up an account for microtransactions (e.g. ChangeTip, CoinBase), then set up a spam filter that bounces messages which aren't white-listed and which lack any micropayment.

    But you won't, for the same reason I won't: fractions of a cent aren't a big cost, but setting up an account to trickle them out is, and it's a cost with network affects. Afterward, nobody can initiate communication with you without first reading your bounce message, quelling their feelings of annoyance, and setting up their own account. Filtering out "people who will pay you" from "people who won't pay you" is easy, but there's no way to automatically filter out "people who won't pay you because they're spammers" from "people who won't pay you because they think that's stupid".

  2. chembot:

    While I agree that your idea would make spam unprofitable in the short term, in the long term it would simply be sanctioned by the US postal service as undoubtedly they would be the ones to take over such a scheme. Just like with paper mail, you would have "standard class" bulk rate email. Is spam mail with the imprimatur of gov't better than what we've got now?

    Also, once you open the door to this kind of proposition, expect the money grubbers to use any excuse to raise the rates under any sort of pretense, ostensibly to "protect" us or to pay for some supposedly worthy scheme, but most likely to pad gov't graft, union pension shortfalls, funneled into some general slush fund, or various other schemes of the usual variety.

  3. Nimrod:

    We already have this with text messages (SMS or MMS), except that those end up being ridiculously expensive for consumers compared to the actual cost to the carrier and there is still text message spam. It seems unlikely that this would work any differently with email.

    People using mail reflectors would tend to unsubscribe from them, shifting such group communications systems onto web sites and such.

    People would also set up alternate parallel email systems, sort of like Apple has set up an alternate parallel sms system (iMessage) to allow their phones to bypass sms and the associated carrier fees.

  4. Matthew Slyfield:

    Your entire premise is flawed, Spam is not free (zero cost). While there is no cost associated with actually sending the emails, the process of sending SPAM is far from zero cost. There are costs tied to acquiring the email addresses (even where this is done illegally), and to generating the emails before they are sent.

  5. Mike Powers:

    There's text message spam, but not nearly on the scale of email spam, and when you complain to someone about text spam it gets dealt with immediately rather than "oh well just block that number, hth hand"

  6. Mike Powers:

    I remember how "the US government is going to PUT A TAX ON EMAIL!!!!" was an urban legend.

  7. mx:

    And what happens when spammers break into your account to send their messages on your nickel? There's every reason to believe this would happen. Spammers already send enormous volumes of mail through botnets consisting of compromised computers.

    Your plan also requires the immediate global cooperation of everybody everywhere at once. This is impractical. Or to put it another way:

    Your post advocates a

    ( ) technical (?) legislative (X) market-based ( ) vigilante

    approach to fighting spam. Your idea will not work. Here is why it won't work. (One or more of the following may apply to your particular idea, and it may have other flaws which used to vary from state to state before a bad federal law was passed.)

    ( ) Spammers can easily use it to harvest email addresses
    (X) Mailing lists and other legitimate email uses would be affected
    ( ) No one will be able to find the guy or collect the money
    ( ) It is defenseless against brute force attacks
    ( ) It will stop spam for two weeks and then we'll be stuck with it
    (X) Users of email will not put up with it
    ( ) Microsoft will not put up with it
    ( ) The police will not put up with it
    (X) Requires too much cooperation from spammers
    (X) Requires immediate total cooperation from everybody at once
    ( ) Many email users cannot afford to lose business or alienate potential employers
    ( ) Spammers don't care about invalid addresses in their lists
    ( ) Anyone could anonymously destroy anyone else's career or business

    Specifically, your plan fails to account for

    ( ) Laws expressly prohibiting it
    (X) Lack of centrally controlling authority for email
    ( ) Open relays in foreign countries
    ( ) Ease of searching tiny alphanumeric address space of all email addresses
    ( ) Asshats
    (X) Jurisdictional problems
    (X) Unpopularity of weird new taxes
    (X) Public reluctance to accept weird new forms of money
    (X) Huge existing software investment in SMTP
    ( ) Susceptibility of protocols other than SMTP to attack
    ( ) Willingness of users to install OS patches received by email
    (X) Armies of worm riddled broadband-connected Windows boxes
    ( ) Eternal arms race involved in all filtering approaches
    (X) Extreme profitability of spam
    ( ) Joe jobs and/or identity theft
    (X) Technically illiterate politicians
    ( ) Extreme stupidity on the part of people who do business with spammers
    (X) Dishonesty on the part of spammers themselves
    ( ) Bandwidth costs that are unaffected by client filtering
    ( ) Outlook

    and the following philosophical objections may also apply:

    (X) Ideas similar to yours are easy to come up with, yet none have ever
    been shown practical
    ( ) Any scheme based on opt-out is unacceptable
    ( ) SMTP headers should not be the subject of legislation
    ( ) Blacklists suck
    ( ) Whitelists suck
    ( ) We should be able to talk about Viagra without being censored
    ( ) Countermeasures should not involve wire fraud or credit card fraud
    ( ) Countermeasures should not involve sabotage of public networks
    (X) Countermeasures must work if phased in gradually
    (X) Sending email should be free
    (X) Why should we have to trust you and your servers?
    ( ) Incompatiblity with open source or open source licenses
    ( ) Feel-good measures do nothing to solve the problem
    ( ) Temporary/one-time email addresses are cumbersome
    ( ) I don't want the government reading my email
    ( ) Killing them that way is not slow and painful enough

    Furthermore, this is what I think about you:

    ( ) Sorry dude, but I don't think it would work.
    (X) This is a stupid idea, and you're a stupid person for suggesting it.
    ( ) Nice try, assh0le! I'm going to find out where you live and burn your
    house down!

  8. Thomas Reid:

    I agree that spam will go away when email isn't free. I don't know how to solve the business model challenge (or I'd be making millions solving it right now) but I believe the demand is there for people willing to pay a premium for an email service that figures out how to charge junk mailers per email.

  9. Steve Merryman:

    Well, since the internet is now regulated by the government as a utility, I expect email "service fees" at any time.

  10. Matthew Slyfield:

    " Here is why it won't work"

    (X) All of the above.

    "Specifically, your plan fails to account for"

    (X) All of the above.

    "and the following philosophical objections may also apply:"

    (X) All of the above.

    "Furthermore, this is what I think about you:"

    (X) All of the above.

  11. Matthew Slyfield:

    "I agree that spam will go away when email isn't free."

    1. Spam has never been free (zero cost). See my comment below for an explanation.

    2. If this was true, I wouldn't have so much bulk mail clogging my physical mailbox.

  12. Daublin:

    Private dating sites sometimes do charge for sending messages. They already have a credit card number for you, and they control both the sender's and receiver's email software, so it becomes a simple matter of software. The idea is to cut down on people that sound out a thousand "hey babeh" messages to just every single female on the site; as far as I know it works.

    In the world of Internet email, Gmail is a big enough market leader at this point that they could probably take the lead on implementing a paid stamping service. A partial answer is that Google is really good at spam detection; they aren't especially interested in shifting how email works, given what an edge their spam detector gives them. Another partial answer, though, is that they really don't want Gmail to have to take a credit card.

    Private messaging system such as Yahoo Messenger have a different solution: contact list management. They still get a lot of spam on those things, but it helps that if you get a message from off your list, the sender gets put into a holding zone on the side until you approve their messages. You can just ignore the holding zone unless you are specifically expecting a new person to be added to your contacts.It's a partial solution that's still free.

    I do wish paid stamps would catch on. If someone is willing to pay a dime to get me to read an email, I don't mind reading it even if it's an advertisement.

  13. Thomas Reid:

    I don't see any comments below.

  14. Michael Stack:

    I see a number of folks quoting this without attribution. I've seen this show up in various forms on the internet, here is one example:

  15. mx:

    It's become so much of the folklore of the spam-related posts that I didn't attribute it to anybody. In fairness to the original author, this is probably the best information about its authorship we know: I'm actually really surprised it only dates to 2003 in this form. I would have thought it went even older.

  16. jon49:

    I use gmail. I don't even know what spam is anymore gmail has gotten it so good at filtering out the garbarge. And, even those great once a year or less when I take a look at the spam box, I rarely find any e-mail that shouldn't be spammed.

  17. jon49:

    Text messaging is free, at least for me. All I need is an internet connection and then free texting. I use google hangouts. In fact, I just go my first smart phone. Now I can call and text all I want with 4g/3g service up to 500 mb for free every month (1 minute of voip calling is about 700kb/m of data). Since we aren't heavy internet users when we are on the go this works out nicely.

    High rates for texting is a thing of the past.

  18. Thomas Reid:

    The argument is about increasing the marginal cost per email sent.

  19. Matthew Slyfield:

    "But the problem of spam is caused entirely by its being free."

    The argument is made on the false premise that there is zero cost now.

  20. obloodyhell:

    Long ago I proposed that (and I am not sure how to do this technically) emails should cost $0.001, or a tenth of a cent, to send.

    You've got it ass backwards.

    You simply need to allow ME to set how much it costs to talk to ME. And have variable rates, so I can set up different e-mail groups.

    You're a friend? Welcome to my "Free" group.

    You're a random individual? Welcome to my "$0.10" group.

    You're a company I do business with (who hasn't abused the privilege)? Welcome to the $0.25 group.

    You're a company selling Cialis? Welcome to the $5 group.

    And I can move -- and backdate any charges if they DECREASE -- anyone between groups. So if you're in the RI group, and sound like an interesting person, I can move you into the "Friends" group and you get all your e-mail costs refunded.

    Organizations can *properly* self-identify (i.e., "We sell Cialis and Viagra") and get a 10% discount. If they fail to properly self-identify, they get double charged... for the correct category.

    And no one even gets their e-mails sent if they don't agree to the recipient category they've been placed in, and have the money in their account to pay for any charges invoked (even the double-charge category)

    Bingo: "What's this 'spam' you speak of?"

    Facebook already has this, in a trivial sense -- I can get PMs from anyone, but I can also set a fee for those who are not whitelisted/friendlisted.

    You don't get a lot of spam PMs on FB, notice?

  21. obloodyhell:

    That's the way he stated it, but it's about the fact that there is a marginal cost-per-e-mail-sent which he's trying to adjust. As I note in my post above, he's just applying the charges ass-backwards from a far more workable scheme.

  22. obloodyhell:

    Another partial answer, though, is that they really don't want Gmail to have to take a credit card.

    Why? You can't GET an account for free anymore without providing a legal contact point. This is why I've moved away from both gmail and yahoo mail.

    Nominal anonymity is a legitimate desire on the internet. Most of these schemes violate that, which is a problem.

  23. obloodyhell:

    Not when it's built into the entire mail system and already comes with a trivial basic setup but one which you can -- if you choose -- set up a more complex system or vary the costs on the base 3-5 categories.

    And the biggest issue there is the whole requirement to make a charge buffer (send us $10 and we'll enable your account for sending to charging recipients) which need not even be done for anyone who doesn't WANT to send e-mails to charged accounts -- i.e., not people on one's friends list -- but only receive (which is 90% of my different e-mail accounts).

  24. irandom419:

    Maybe California will tax every email you receive.

  25. Stephen_Macklin:

    Don't worry. Now that the government has decided the internet is a public utility they will figure out a way to make us pay.

  26. Michael Stack:

    Yeah and in fairness I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I know a lot of folks are already familiar with it, I just wanted to make sure everyone knew about it - wasn't trying to be critical.

  27. Aaron:

    A way to "charge" for email would be to make the email sender do some sort of mathematical computation that takes a CPU like one second. Maybe the servers could basically pose the question to the CPU of the sending email. Anyway, sending an email here and there is no big deal, but to send 10 billion would take like 317 years.

    I don't know anything about computers, but this is a good idea in my own mind.

  28. Matthew Slyfield:

    The reason he thinks that the marginal cost per e-mail sent needs adjusting is because he is under a false impression that the marginal cost is zero.

    Both you and Coyote are missing a couple of steps. Before you start arguing about how to adjust the marginal cost, you first need to demonstrate two other things that both of you have simply hand-waved away.

    1. That the current marginal cost is too low.

    2. That increasing the marginal cost will fix the problem you allege without causing significant negative impacts on the entire email system.

    To achieve 1, you need to demonstrate that you have some idea what the marginal costs are, which since you simply ignore this, you obviously don't.

    Personally, given the amount of junk bulk mail in the physical mail system, I don't think either of your proposals can meet #2.

  29. skhpcola:

    Occam's's all because of asshats.

  30. Thomas Reid:

    Regarding the claim that I am assuming marginal costs are too low before establishing marginal costs: You're right. I haven't established the marginal cost of junk mail.

    Let me revise my claim: Using my own experience, I am willing to pay extra to make it more expensive for people I don't want sending email to me to send email to me.

    That said, you've failed to establish the claim that I have proposed anything that will "cause significant negative impacts on the entire email system." In other words, stop waving your hands while you're telling me to stop waving mine.

    Regarding your example of using the physical mail system as a model; do you know anyone who appreciates having their mail box stuffed with junk mail. If not, why cite it as an example of an efficient system?

  31. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Regarding your example of using the physical mail system as a model; do
    you know anyone who appreciates having their mail box stuffed with junk
    mail. If not, why cite it as an example of an efficient system?"

    I don't city it as an example of an efficient system. I cite it as reason to doubt that increasing the marginal cost of sending email will do anything to reduce spam. The marginal costs of physical junk mail are very likely much larger than for bulk email, yet physical junk mail persists.

    "That said, you've failed to establish the claim that I have proposed anything that will "cause significant negative impacts on the entire email system." In other words, stop waving your hands while you're telling me to stop waving mine."

    You're the one whose proposing to change the existing system. The burden of proof is on you to establish that the benefits of your proposed change outweigh any costs. Your proposal will necessarily increase the cost of the email system to everyone who doesn't share your opinion that spam is such a drastic problem. That is a negative impact on the system.

  32. Thomas Reid:

    1. The existence of physical junk mail doesn't mean that you couldn't have more if bulk mail didn't require postage.
    2. I don't believe you have to operate by the precautionary principle. We have ample evidence of using the pricing system to regulate usage of resources to suspect that your fears of "significant negative impacts on the entire mail system" are misplaced. Besides, you may be mistakenly assuming that I am advocating coercion. I'm not.

  33. Ken N:

    I agree. The current email system is broken. I have a spam filter set pretty high. I still get spam but I need to go through the filter regularly to fish out false positives.
    I reckon that the way to achieve it is for someone - an email service provider - to offer a commercial grade service, for a fee.
    Part of the deal would be that all senders must register and pay a fee per message.
    It would be a closed system but I'd be happy to pay for it.

  34. LoneSnark:

    This would be trivial to do, technically. It is the beauty of the internet that you have no restrictions. You can set up such an email server, just know that most people that email you there, the nail won't be delivered, since most of the internet isn't running the protocol to pay the delivery fee. That said, just as with SMS, no one pays for one message. The messages are added up and the net difference between sent and received is paid for. Therefore, since on average customers send as much as they receive, the net charge between two large SMS providers is zero. At which point, there is no need to change protocols at all, just have a trusted provider list which is trusted to pay if they send more than they receive. And given this trust, that trusted provider will police it's customer base to prevent spam which would make it pay. In this way, nearly all customer directed email providers would still be free, so those that send a lot are subsidized by those that receive a lot.

    Of course, effectively this system now looks identical to the system we have now with Gmail. Gmail now blocks (spam folder) all email from untrusted providers. To become trusted, you must police your customers to prevent spammers. For us on Gmail, this has worked rather well. Not too long ago, Gmail blocked all email from Microsoft because too many Gmail customers clicked the Spam button, causing Microsoft to lose its trusted status. The equivalent would be if Sprint stopped delivering Verizon's messages.

    Overall, I like Gmail's system infinitely more than yours for two reasons: false positives, and false negatives. If the spammer it's willing to pay, there is no stopping them on your system, see SMS and the postal system. Also, if you are just someone that sends a lot more messages than they receive, your system will get them shut down even though they obviously are not spamming anyone.

    I've known someone to have their unlimited texting plan get cut off for the crime of trying to organize a complex event on their phone in such a way that volunteers with cheap phones could receive instant updates. They had to switch to Twitter.

  35. Q46:

    Why should I in effect pay a tax on email to stop something, Spam, which does not bother me, so the value to me of stopping it is less than the cost to me?

    Am I alone to have a Spam folder, delete button and the discretionary powers which direct me to read/not to read any particular email/emails?

    If others are incapable of dealing with Spam, why should I have to pay to resolve the issue for these poor, wee, wilting weeds?

    In fact I love Spam, as in idle moments I can trawl through my Spam folder selecting the emails that begin 'Beloved', 'Dear Friend in Jesus' and/or promise to make me a millionaire wherein I can enjoy the the splendid mangling of the English language. On that basis perhaps I should pay to receive Spam.

    I would remind... that other Spam, which we call junk mail, does cost to send out or have poked through the letterbox, as indeed do all those phone calls from double glazing companies and the like, text messages from Helga dangling temptation, and it certainly provides no impediment.

    It seems highly improbable that a nominal charge for emails would stop Spam when evidently there is more than sufficient potential reward to cover the outlay.

  36. markm:

    I guess your time is free. For the rest of us, the time we spend having to either sort through an overstuffed inbox, or to sort through a spam folder because business e-mails keep getting put there, is time diverted from productive and/or enjoyable activities.

  37. abtinf:

    There have been a number of proposals in the past to implement this sort of thing. The key insight is that it is not at all necessary to have an actual system of payments to increase the cost of email.

    Instead, you can implement what is called a "proof-of-work" system. The sender of an email is required to perform a function where the result is computationally expensive to calculate, but verification of the answer is trivial for the recipient.

    "Computationally expensive" can still mean very fast by human standards. If it took a modern computer 1 millisecond to compute the answer, the cost to send an email would go up by at least 4 orders of magnitude. Yet the typical email user would not notice any impairment in their ability to use email. Nor would they experience any increase in cost, since a typical user's CPU sits idle 99.999% of the time.

    Beyond getting to broad adoption, there are some problems with this scheme. For example, there are many legitimate uses for mass email, from discussion mailing lists to shipment notifications, which result in significant costs for large commercial users.