I think that small tariffs on “published” messages could stop spam, and also reduce the need for advertising online. Users don’t pay to receive e-mail, but they do pay a little each time they send. Users don’t pay to read web pages, but they do pay a little to comment on them. This wouldn’t change the model of the Internet or Web greatly, but it could significantly change the result.
The need for a better solution
Stopping spam is a difficult problem. It could be tackled at the source and/or the destination. Politicians could criminalize spam, or at least tax it — ideally, stop spam at the source. Why anyone would want more regulation and more taxes is unfathomable to most computer programmers. We prefer to invent clever algorithms instead — ideally, stop spam at it’s destination.
There’s a problem with our approach. Spam isn’t caused by buggy machines, it’s caused by greedy people. If humans have trouble deciding whether an e-mail is in their best interest, how much more a disinterested computer! Even if you believe that greedy people are actually just buggy machines, are you willing to bet the spam battle on your ability to create a superior being? If you have an algorithm that takes text as input and gives a motive as output, there are 33 sets of grieving Hokies still groping for answers. (I’m not sure whether Cringley’s recent “search engine for hate” post is meant as some kind of sick joke to that affect, or what.) There’s no algorithm that can stop sin, except for a sacrificial love which overcame death.
The solution applied to e-mail
Don’t keep up the AI arms race, spammers are clever too. Don’t let the government start skimming more profits, spammers are expert evaders. Instead, let the ISPs charge to accept email on your behalf. This might require modifications to the inter-net email relaying protocols, but with things like DomainKeys and server-based spamboxes we’re doing that anyway.
The solution on the Web
There’s more to gain on today’s Web. Imagine leveraging an OpenID-like (or even OpenID-based) system in a micropayments context. Please don’t check out just yet if you think you’ve heard this all before.
Five years and who knows how many market cycles later, I still agree with most of Jakob Nielsen’s User Payments synopsis. Basically, paid content stinks, but ads and spam stink worse. “Information wants to be free” may remind me of “Arbeit macht frei”, but I still don’t want to pay to read your blog. There’s a lot of pressure keeping the Web from going back to a royalty model, perhaps rightly so. But we can flip micropayments around.
A practical scenario
The Web is currently infatuated with user-generated content, so there are plenty of other extrapolations, but weblogs are an obvious use. A successful blog currently tries to exploit it’s fixed content for money and protect it’s user feedback frome abuse. This is naïve and ugly: income via ads, protection via captchas/logins/AI plugins. Instead, why not install a micropayments plugin? Basically:
- The webmaster chooses a username/signature service from any number of providers
- These service providers act as brokers, deducting/depositing money into the user’s account
- The user’s info/balance is not stored with the service providers, but in an account with a larger entity
Basically, it’s PayPal for Web 2.0 — less centralized, more user friendly. The user doesn’t want to keep his credit card on file with every blog he users, but neither can one company be expected to provide plugins for every blog/forum/link-swamp-service out there. Hence the middle-man services providers. They provide an API specific to a problem-domain, and use a standard protocol to link up with any main account provider the user chooses.
Result: Blogs with active discussion have a reasonable, and practical, alternative to advertisements. Users think just a little bit before they respond. Most importantly, spammers get sick of making blog owners rich.
Users could refuse to accept such a plan, preferring to leave the financial and spam-filtering burden completely on the content providers’ tab. But trading chaotic s and s for a painless just-charge-it is not really a bad deal. I’m paying about a tenner a month for the privilege of writing on my own site, and I’d gladly support your site with my literal 2¢. This does mean speech for the end-user would no longer be free-as-in-beer, but if adequate attention was paid to privacy concerns there would be no harm done to free speech. If a user doesn’t have a credit card, they can sign up with an account provider that foots the tab in exchange for completing Mechanical Turk-style tasks.
Spammers may not give up so easily, though. If they can’t afford to pay microtariffs on everybody’s blog, the most likely alternative is to instead target only relevant blogs. How this differs from AdSense, I don’t know. The only serious concern left then is security. Spammers must not be able to phish or botnet their way into anyone else’s main account. But this is a concern for countless other scenarios as well, and is by no means an excuse not to try. And if time is money, the time we save by tackling the problem of spam as capitalists rather than technologists will more than make up for any spurious charges encountered as the system is gaining experience.
Spam is a people problem, as is making a microtariff system acceptable. I am a programmer. If spam was a big interest of mine, I might be immersing myself in Bayesian Filtering and Neural Networks in a technologic attempt to save the world. But this series has been immersing enough, and I have no interest in becoming the PayPal of the New and Amazing Web. Currently this site is low bandwidth and SpamKarma hasn’t swatted too many of my dad’s comments. However, when this site’s readership and “spammer”ship grow beyond what my budget can bear, I would much rather join a privatized microtariff economy than Google’s ginormous AdSense scheme. If you know someone who’s looking for a get-rich-and-save-the-world,like,yesterday scheme, I’d love to hear what they think of this plan. The comments are open and, for as long as practical, still free!