Pay Or Go Away: What Would Spammers Do?

A penny for your thoughts would take on a new meaning if spammers were charged for every e-mail message they sent. University of Michigan researchers have a proposal to do just that.

Here’s how it would work: Internet users would be allowed to set a price at which they will accept e-mail from an unknown sender. The higher the price, the less spam the recipient is likely to receive. Recipients can collect the amount they specified for any spam received, unless it was from a pre-approved sender.

The U-M researchers will present their solution, called Attention Bond Mechanism (ABM), before the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics in Washington D.C. on Thursday (June 10).

The researchers are Marshall Van Alstyne, an assistant professor in the School of Information, computer science doctoral students Thede Loder and Rick Wash, and Mark Benerofe, a senior technology industry and media executive in Atlanta, Ga.

“The purpose is to make spam too expensive for spammers to send,” Van Alstyne said. “The sender who believes his or her message is not spam is willing to put up that money—to risk it—to prove that if the recipient reads the email, they will agree that it is not spam. Spammers can’t afford this.”

Some programs and filters are not effective because bulk mailers’ tactics change, the researchers said. In the process, e-mail service providers often filter legitimate mail and the recipients miss messages they would want to see.

“ABM works because it lets both the recipient and the sender negotiate the terms under which they both want communication at a negligible cost,” Loder said. “They do this without third-party human mediation, sunk costs or taxes.”

Wash said this system will improve the “quality of information exchange and reduce the e-mail volume that clogs networks and increases costs for consumers and businesses. In general, everyone’s productivity increases, with the exception of the spammers.”

As with any realistic spam solution, the ABM requires additional infrastructure. However, no part is fundamentally new or unproven. “Everything that is needed already exists—it just needs to be wired together properly,” Van Alstyne said.

If the research team’s anti-spam technology becomes widely used, the spam problem could be licked within two to three years, Van Alstyne said.

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