Fight Spam With Pennies

Fight spam by donating to your favorite charity. That’s how researchers at Yahoo are hoping to convince people to put a virtual one-cent stamp on their outgoing e-mails. Sending a penny-stamped e-mail through Yahoo’s (not yet released) CentMail program would automatically mark it as “real mail” and get it past any spam filters, Wired reports. As an added incentive, the penny goes to the charity of your choice. Critics argue that it’s only a matter of time before spammers figure out how to make counterfeit stamps. [%comments]


Terry

Gmail seems to filter spam quite nicely; and for free!

Sheamus

Or for that matter, for the price of a penny, wouldn't it be commercially viable to pay the fee to have your spam-mail automatically approved and therefore have a much bigger chance of being opened and read?

David

It seems very difficult to accomplisyh given the decentralized (and open) structure of the current email system. Without a complete overhaul, it would be difficult to accomplish. With an overhaul, we can stop many of the abuses without the necessary payment scheme.

brazzy

The suggestion to combat spam by making emails cost money is as old as spam itself (I have personally heard it more than 10 years ago) and utterly impractical and pointless.

Spam works because internet bandwidth is cheap and emails require very little of it.

You cannot penalize bandwidth usage in general because then all those useful, innovative, free new Web 2.0 services would die immediately.

You cannot selectively penalize email traffic because it would be easy to disguise it as something else, and there are legitimate mass emails (most significantly discussion mailing lists) that should not be penalized.

So what does that leave you with? An impressive-sounding but ultimately dumb idea. This "compromise" of paid emails not being checked by spam filters, even if it cannot be forged, is still pointless because either spam filters work like they always have, in which case there is no advantage compared to not having these paid emails because legitimate ones usually do get through them.

Or spam filters are adjusted to give more false positives on non-paid mails, which hurts the above-mentioned mailing lists as well as everyone else whose email provider hasn't joined this programme (which probably requires significant investment in infrastructure and beaurocracy). Like people who want to run their own email servers. Yay for the new email oligopoly?

And finally, there's the question of how it can be guaranteed that the money actually reaches the charity and this isn't just an attempt to turn a useful service that costs nothing because it's so cheap to provide into a huge cash cow - like test messages.

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Paul

Wow, I love this idea. I hope spammers don't ruin it. Also, how are you going to pay the penny. It seems like it could be a logistics problem for not business users.

Justin Harper

What a great idea. Wish I had thought of that.

jokerman2

According to about.com, 183 billion emails are sent a day. They also estimate that around 70% or roughly 128 billion of these are spam. That leaves 'real' emails of about 55 billion a day. A one cent surcharge on those emails would generate 550 million dollars every day. Call me a cynic but I suspect ISP's, who typically supply email as part of your internet service, would find a good excuse to shove a good deal of this extra revenue into their pockets rather than handing it off to charities.

A better strategy to combat spam would be to lessen the number of botnet computers out on the web. These machines are surreptitiously sending the bulk of spam. As long as the internet is filled up with poorly maintained Windows PC's which are subject to being compromised, botnets and spam will continue to be a problem. Making users pay extra for sending an email probably won't change that.

Of course, I could be wrong.

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WholeMealOfFood

There was a similar idea discussed in Why Not? by Barry J. Nalebuff and Ian Ayres (of this blog). In that version, if I remember correctly, the recipient received the postage as a payment, but had the option to not accept the postage if the email was wanted. Alternatively, it could be viewed as payment by an advertiser to the consumer to view an email advertisement.

sram

Who pays the penny? Yahoo or the sender?

noah

What's with all the unfounded criticism? Not just the comments, but even the summary needs fact checking.

"Critics argue that it's only a matter of time before spammers figure out how to make counterfeit stamps."

Anyone with a basic understanding of modern cryptography can explain several way to prevent counterfeiting.

Or...

"for the price of a penny, wouldn't it be commercially viable to pay the fee to have your spam-mail automatically approved"

I don't know where the idea that spam somehow makes more that 1 cent per recipient. Response rates to spam are generally less than 1%. A spammer has to send tens of millions of emails a day to make any money. Since you can't seem to do the math, that's millions of dollars per day.

"You cannot selectively penalize email traffic because it would be easy to disguise it as something else,"

How do you fool a mail server into thinking it is receiving something that isn't mail? All it does is receive mail. If the mail doesn't have a stamp, it doesn't get accepted. That's like saying the post office can't check for stamps because there are all these other cars on the road with the mail trunks.

And...

"Call me a cynic but I suspect ISP's, who typically supply email as part of your internet service, would find a good excuse to shove a good deal of this extra revenue into their pockets rather than handing it off to charities."

This is Yahoo. Yahoo is not an ISP. Yahoo provides webmail. And so what if it doesn't go to charity? The spam still goes away because it isn't profitable anymore.

"A better strategy to combat spam would be to lessen the number of botnet computers out on the web"

Don't you think if we could get rid of the bot nets, we would? That's like saying it would be better strategy to eliminate all the causes of cancer than work on cancer treatment. An impossible strategy isn't better.

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Janet V

I would not give the time of day to an ISP, much less more money than I'm already giving them.

I simply don't trust that they'll actually get that money to the charities. They'll lobby Congress for the right to charge administrative fees -- and they'll win.

Great idea, just completely impractical. I'm looking at you, Comcast!

RJK

I remember reading once of an idea to charge outgoing mail one penny (or a nickel, or whatever), which would be refunded when the user opened the mail (and didn't mark it as spam.) If this could work, legitimate e-mail stays free to the end user, and spammers would be on the hook for lots of money, ruining their business model.

Janet V

@noah (#10): I think the discussion about ISPs was considering what would happen if the proposal were broadened beyond Yahoo! as a mail provider. If such a system turned out to be successful, you can bet your last penny that the ISPs would try to get their paws on it.

Dan T.

How is Yahoo going to get everybody who maintains a spam filter, at the server or client level, to cooperate and flag those messages as "non-spam"? They don't have the power to force anybody to accept their system.

bifyu

John Levine put out a white paper about the problems with e-postage some years ago. What's new here that he hasn't addressed?

http://taugh.com/epostage.pdf

John Langford

That's an interesting white paper. What's changed is:

(a) the spam problem has become substantially worse.
(b) centmail doesn't require universal participation to be helpful---it's partial adoption helps existing infrastructure.
(c) the relative cost of computer/network effort vs human effort has changed by perhaps an order of magnitude since 2004.

centmail is also invulnerable by design to several of the problems mentioned for postage systems. For example, recipients have much less motivation to provoke the sending of email to themselves, because they don't receive the money.