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Putting Their Stamp on E-Mail

  |  February 9, 2004   |  Comments

Microsoft and Yahoo! want e-mail 'postage.' The pros, the cons, andthe caveats.

Sending email is free, right? Wrong! At least, it won't be if Microsoft and Yahoo have a say in how email infrastructure is configured in the future. Bill Gates said recently in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the spam problem will be solved within two years. The most important element of the solution, according to Gates, is to add "postage" to email.

The New York Times, reporting the story last Monday, said Yahoo is evaluating a solution by start-up company Goodmail that would allow the portal to require postage on email addressed to recipients with a Yahoo address. Speaking to the Times, Brad Garlinghouse, Yahoo VP for communications products, said the company believes stamps might work because they cause more "friction in sending email." It will be too expensive, goes the argument, for spammers to pay the toll. Hence, the economic incentive to send spam disappears, as do those annoying emails.

Call it a stamp, toll, tax, or sender liability, the idea of charging for email has been around for a long time. There are good arguments for and against. Let's take a quick look at a few of them.

Charging for E-Mail Is Antithetical to How the Internet Works

Because email hasn't been free, we don't want to pay for it now. That's a silly argument. Sure, email has historically been free to all end users. Sure, we'd rather have it be free in the future. The reality is it costs a lot of money to host and operate the networks and infrastructure that enable email. Most people pay some kind of access fee to an ISP to get their email.

Massachusetts-based Vanquish proposes this scheme: Senders post a bond, and recipients charge them for their messages to get through. If the message is from your mother or a known friend, you let it in without charge.

It's far too early to say if email stamps will end up costing consumers because ISPs will charge them to send email, or whether it will make ISPs rich because hungry marketers will pay big bucks to get their messages through. It may not be how the Internet worked in the past, but get ready for it to be part of the future ecosystem.

It's Too Complex to Implement and Requires the Entire Internet Be Upgraded

Sure, it's complex. Getting a robot to look for water on Mars is complex, too. That doesn't mean it can't be done.

Goodmail proposes an elegant solution that inserts a stamp in email, then lets the receiving gateway determine whether to charge the sender. If the gateway isn't stamp-aware, then it simply lets mail through and the sender isn't charged. The solution is backwards compatible with the existing infrastructure and only requires an upgrade if the receiver wants to pocket the stamp.

Spammers Can't Make Money If They Stamp Every E-Mail

Depends how you define "spam." I get a lot of junk postal mail. That demonstrates people are clearly willing to pay a lot more than $0.01 to reach me. Untargeted, indiscriminate broadcast email will mostly disappear. But don't think charging one penny, or even 10, to send email will rid your inbox of unsolicited commercial email.

It's Just Another Way for Big ISPs to Make Money

Sure it is. So is pretty much everything else a business does. Nothing wrong with making money, last time I checked. It may just give email gateways greater flexibility in the kinds of services they can offer their customers.

You want a "free" Yahoo email account. Then you'll have to accept Yahoo drops a few unsolicited stamped messages in your inbox every day. Don't want those? Pay Yahoo $1.99 per month for a spam-free inbox.

By the way, since it will cost marketers real money to reach that inbox, they may rediscover the value of good old-fashioned segmentation and targeting. Those email messages may look more relevant all of a sudden.

Charging for E-Mail Will Dampen the Free Flow of Online Information

Perhaps the subtlest argument, but the one I worry about the most. If every email requires postage, there's an undue burden on a number of legitimate, noncommercial high-volume uses of email. Not the email I send from my personal account, mind. But say I send five per day, or 150 each month. If my ISP decided to charge $0.01 per email, that's $1.50 per month, or $18 per year. I'd certainly rather not pay, but if it really helps get rid of spam, I'm willing to make pitch in a few extra bucks.

A solution can easily be implemented to allow low-volume personal mail to be delivered with little or no postage. The real burden falls on a university hosting a forwarding service for alumni or a guy running a list serv for a music discussion board, with 500,000 messages going out weekly. At one penny per email, the guy hosting the list would have to pay $5,000 per week. An absolute showstopper!

Conclusion

E-mail stamps are a good idea, but they must be part of a broader effort -- introducing secure tokens in email. A "token" is a little piece of information, hidden in the email header, that can have attributes, such as monetary value (making it a stamp), identity, and representations about message content, among other things.

For instance, it may carry lots of postage, indicating it's an unsolicited commercial message. Or it may carry less postage, indicating it's an opt-in newsletter, a bank statement, or a purchase receipt. It may not carry any postage at all, indicating it's personal mail from a known sender. It will be up to recipients to determine what types of tokens they accept and what policies they put in place to handle different types of tokens.

If we're going to upgrade the email infrastructure to support email stamps or, as others propose, to facilitate secure authentication of senders to weed out spammers, let's do it right. We need a solution for embedding secure tokens with lots of different attributes and characteristics. Yahoo and Microsoft should support an open standard for tokenizing email. That's how they'll put a lasting, valuable stamp on email, defining and leading the way toward the next generation of email infrastructure.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hans-Peter Brøndmo

Hans Peter BrØndmo has spent his career at the intersection of technological innovation and consumer empowerment. He is a successful serial entrepreneur and a recognized thought leader. His latest company, Plum, is a consumer service with big plans to make the Web easier to use. In 1996, he founded pioneering e-mail marketing company Post Communications. His recent book, "The Engaged Customer," is a national bestseller and widely recognized as the bible of e-mail relationship marketing. As a sought-after keynote speaker, he has addressed more than 50 conferences in the past three years, is often featured in national media, and has been invited to testify at two U.S. Senate hearings and an FCC hearing on Internet privacy and spam. Hans Peter is on the board of the online privacy certification and seal program of TRUSTe and several companies. He performed his undergraduate and graduate studies at MIT.

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