E-Mail Postage Due

If early experience from the Can-Spam act is any indication, we have a long way to go before legislation will protect us from unwanted commercial e-mail.

If early experience from the Can-Spam act is any indication, we have a long way to go before legislation will protect us from unwanted commercial e-mail. Meanwhile, its about time we dusted off an idea that has been all too readily dismissed: e-mail postage.

Heres the deal. Suppose every addressee cost the sender, say, 1 cent. Would legitimate businesses be willing to pay this fee to increase the likelihood that recipients would read their missives? I believe the answer is yes. The ISP could collect the fee, keep a small portion for its accounting service and remit the remainder to Uncle Sam. This may not retire the public debt, but it would be a self-supporting public service.

The Internet is no longer a research-oriented network for academics. It is part of the business landscape, and postage is part of the cost of doing business. Why should commerce-laden applications such as e-mail get a free ride?

E-mail postage has the benefit of not tampering with free speech by controlling content. It just changes the economic model for direct e-mail marketing. Even Bill Gates, in his remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has come around to this way of thinking.

ISP-enforced censorship may jeopardize rights protected under the First Amendment. First pornography, then sexual-enhancement drugs, then lower-cost prescriptions, then home refinancing ... where is the line we shouldnt cross?

Although the requirement that senders provide a valid e-mail address is a worthy objective, its not easy to verify reliably. And clever spammers will be able to avoid the double-opt-in requirement. Supplementing a white list with a small fee set by the recipient has some appeal but might be daunting to manage.

The current IP cannot require ironclad identification of a sender, although an ISP can play a role if the sender is paying by credit card. But some ISPs are free, which is why so much objectionable mail comes from Yahoo addresses and why some companies configure their firewalls to prevent any mail from free services from entering. I shed no tears for endangered no-cost e-mail services, any more than I weep for telemarketers that vociferously protested the National Do Not Call Registry. Exceptions? Legitimate mailers could institute an opt-in service that could be exempt.

The argument against e-mail postage is whether we want the government messing with the Net. I say its better to have the government enforcing a realistic business model than messing with content. We have laws against solicitation, child porn and so on, but they dont work. Messing with the bottom line—now that will grab attention.

Ed Bride was editor of Computerworld and founding editor of Software Magazine and is now a public relations consultant to companies in the software and Internet industry. Free Spectrum is a forum for the IT community. Send submissions to free_ spectrum@ziffdavis.com.