Cohn on charging for e-mail

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Cindy Cohn doesn't like the AOL/Yahoo pay-to-send e-mail scheme:
The justification is that if people have to pay to send email, they won't send junk email. Apparently AOL and Yahoo believe that if we "tax" speech then only desirable speech happens. We all know how well that works for postal mail -- that's why no one gets any "free" AOL starter disks, right?

I don't think this argument actually holds up that well. The volume of junk paper mail that most people get is far less than the volume of spam people get. So, while it's true that people get a lot of junk paper mail, it also seems true that the fact that there's some cost associated with it substantially reduces the amount you get. And note that I don't get any pornographic paper junk mail--unless you count the Victoria's Secret catalog. Now, you can say this is because the sender is identified and the USPS can track them down, but at least the identified part would be true in a pay-for-service system too.

Note that as I said earlier, though, this system doesn't require charging for messages because anti-spam enforcement can be by contractual mechanisms (see below). But a more any-to-any charging system could work without enforcement.

If email senders bear a burden, who gains? Not Yahoo and AOL customers, whose email boxes are being sold off. It will presumably be harder for even desired email to reach them.

This is obviously a real concern that I raised in my original message. But, then, as Kevin Dick observes, if the market is competitive, then people can switch providers to someone who doesn't charge for access to their mailboxes--or to someone who passes through the fee to them!

In return, customers probably will now get not one but two helpings of spam. For only $.0025 cent per message, Yahoo and AOL will guarantee delivery of this extra-special "certified" paid-placement mail, served alongside your ordinary spam. They'll also preserve webbugs, little privacy invaders that report back when you look at the email. Goodmail says that it will ensure that the messages aren't spam, but it's not clear how they will enforce this. After all if a foolproof way for a third-party to distinguish wanted from unwanted messages existed, we would have solved the spam problem long ago.

I don't actually agree with this last objection. It's true that we can't mechanically filter out spam, but that doesn't mean that Goodmail can't enforce that messages aren't spam. That's comparatively simple: you have some contractual standard and if they violate it (e.g., if a user sends you a spam e-mail that's from an identified customer--and remember that you probably have to authenticate these messages anyway so you have an audit trail) then you have a large penalty or cancel the contract or something.

What about phishing? Remember, the problem with phishing is that ordinary end users cannot always tell when a "certification" is real. Spoofing the appearance of Goodmail certification to end users should not be much of a problem, and all of the encryption in the world won't fix that.

I don't understand this argument at all. Yahoo/AOL, etc. control their own Web UI frames and should be able to arrange that the certified indicator only appears for legitimately certified e-mail. Remember that Yahoo and AOL like to suppress active content in un-certified e-mail, so this makes most of the spoofing mechanisms much harder to execute. And remember that if one of the contracting parties is a phisher, then we can use the penalty mechanisms I mentioned above to deal with them. This isn't a benefit of charging, of course, just of accountability.

Note that I'm not saying that charging for e-mail is a good way to suppress spam. I'm still uncertain about that myself, but I don't think it can be dismissed this glibly, either.

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7 Comments

"if the market is competitive, then people can switch providers to someone who doesn't charge for access to their mailboxes"

Yeah, but to make that realistic, you'd need to make email addresses portable to the new provider, wouldn't you?

There is a huge cost for changing email addresses, so "just change ISPs" is a non-starter. The fact that your ISP has started calling more of your legitimate mail "possibly spam" means that you have to go through your "possibly spam" pile more often than you used to, and will therefore miss more legitimate mail. What Goodmail offers end users is the tradeoff of better-identified legitimate advertising in exchange for more false positives on their current mail. That's a crappy balance.

If you have some numbers to back up your claim that there's a huge cost to changing ISPs for the general email using population, I'd love to see it. It's not at all clear to me that this cost for most people is that high, certainly not that it's higher than the cost of having unreliable email.

There's a large fraction of the population that is relatively new to email, so their switching costs may be modest. Moreover, if email is really important to you, you probably take steps to ensure address consistency such as having your own domain or using your college's alumni email address.

A little Googline revealed this UK survey:

http://www.net4now.com/isp_news/news_article.asp?News_ID=3382

Here's the relvant paragraph:

"More than one-half of broadband users believe it is easy to switch providers and many plan to do so in the next 12 months. Although broadband users cite cost as one of the least important factors in driving satisfaction, it plays a key role in convincing customers to switch to another provider. The study finds that 91 percent of customers who are considering switching say that price is a critical factor that would trigger their decision to switch. Reliability of service (89%) is the second-most-critical factor."

Admittedly, this is for broadband, not email ISP, but at least it's some evidence.

Also, the 2005 ClearContext email survey at:

http://www.clearcontext.com/survey/2005/raw_survey_summary.html

Shows that only 34.7% of those surveyed use Web email while 48.7% use POP. Only 3.3% of those surveyed have only one email account.

So I think it's pretty clear that "non-starter" is a bit of a strong claim.

"...that doesn't mean that Goodmail can't enforce that messages aren't spam."

As an accreditation service, Goodmail can hold signers to particular standards of conduct, but that doesn't mean that certified messages won't be perceived as spam by the recipient anyway.

"at least the identified part would be true in a pay-for-service system too."

and

"As an accreditation service, Goodmail can hold signers to particular standards of conduct"

both assume that nobody's writing viruses and worms which compromise hundreds of thousands of machines, many of which have valid "stamps" on them which can be used to send email "from" the compromised machine, to anyone, at no charge to the real sender.

Right. This is the usual argument against any kind of accreditation or charging scheme. The counterargument is that having accountability is the first step towards giving people an incentive to secure their machines. As I indicated above, I'm not totally sold by this argument, but I could imagine how, for instance, Amazon could structure things so that only some secure machine could send these certified mails. After all, they manage to do that with their HTTPS server.

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