Home > Computers and Internet > All emails should cost 1¢

All emails should cost 1¢

Recently I watched a presentation about spam. One of the reasons why spam can be effective in getting past spam filters is that webmail (Live Mail, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL) hosts mailboxes for end users for free. The business model is that advertisers will display advertisements when people view their inbox, thereby paying for the service. This works great, unless there’s spam. Because what spammers do is create a bunch of free accounts, and then never personally log into them (no advertisements get viewed by end users). They write programs to send messages back and forth between the accounts to find out which messages make it through. They train the spam filters to ignore their messages.

In essence the spammers are using the free services as their testing infrastructure. Doing so makes it very difficult for any sort of reputation algorithms to have any value. Also, it allows to spammers to always know if their messages need more work behind them. But if web-based emails were to cost 1¢ it would make it very expensive for the spammers to use the free emails services in this way.

Of course all of the major providers would need to implement this policy at the same time for it to become successful. And of course when it happens, people will be very angry and post nasty comments online. But think about it, without email how much would it cost you to communicate as much as you do? A lot more than a penny per message sent (receiving would still be free). Mailing a letter in the US costs nearly half a dollar, and cell phone minutes costs more than that. Even ignoring the revenue earned from messages the reduction in spam would free up resources and allow the webmail hosters to provide better infrastructure, or other better services. It would be an overall gain for every non-spammer involved.

Sadly, due to perception, it would never work. Let’s say it happened; what would happen next is some new company comes along and doesn’t charge per message. I can see lots of people flocking to the new “freemail” service. But just as people will flock to it, so will the spammers. Then the existing services will detect that the freemail servers are spam servers, and start blocking all messages coming from those servers. From the freemail’s legitimate users point of view, they’ll see a bunch of reply messages which tell them that their message weren’t sent, because Live Mail/Gmail/Yahoo! Mail, all determine that it’s spam. These users then think “Those other services suck. They couldn’t tell that I’m not spam.” Little do they know that if they were to look at the volume of emails coming from their servers, they’d think that they were spam too.

I know that this happens because it’s happened to me. I’ve never had any of my Windows Live Mail emails marked as spam, but I’ve had people tell me that WLM has rejected messages that they’ve sent to me. So they think that Live Mail is doing a bad job, when really it’s been Gmail doing a bad job, in allowing spam to be sent from their servers. Of course there’s more to filtering spam than just based on the sending server, but at some point there’s a cutoff line where a spam filter won’t even bother to look at the individual messages.

Today I learned that if AOL suspects that messages being sent from one of its own accounts are spam, it sends those emails through specific servers. They in essence pre-mark the message as spam. What happened is someone was told by their friends who use AOL, that the emails they were sending to their Live Mail account were getting bounced back. So of course they took the “Live Mail sucks” attitude. When in reality AOL was marking the message as spam, but was still sending it along through a designated spam server, to Live Mail (which then bounced it back).

So spam, it’s a problem. It’d overwhelm our email ecosystem if we didn’t fight so hard against it. Our services wouldn’t have to fight so hard against it if they could charge 1¢ per sent message, but sadly that business model will never work because (just like the outrage over Netflix raising its prices this week) people get really angry over raised prices, and people usually don’t do a good job when it comes to blaming the right party.


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