- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

It costs the United States anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion a year and accounts for more than half of all e-mail traffic. It is spam, and its floods inboxes with unwelcome messages offering everything from assurances of a slimmer waistline to cheap prescription drugs and opportunities to view pornography. Internet-service providers (ISPs) and the federal government are trying to curtail spam. These days, though, the debate spins on whether the most effective solutions should be economical or technological.

Microsoft is examining several solutions to the junk e-mail problem, including a variety of new filters and a caller ID program, since a high percentage of spam originates from forged e-mail addresses. But Microsoft has focused its energies on two potential solutions in particular: the so-called Penny Black Project and a micropayments system. The Penny Black Project would require computers to perform a computational cycle, perhaps 10 seconds or so per e-mail, in order for a message to be delivered. For the average e-mail user, the time lag is negligible. But for spammers, who send large amounts of bulk e-mail, it could prove more than a little complicated. The micropayments system would enable e-mail recipients to decide if they want to charge the sender for sending the message. The presumption, of course, is that friends and family would choose not to charge one another.

Goodmail, a Silicon Valley start-up, has proposed a 1 cent “stamp” for bulk e-mail. Goodmail would sell such stamps to bulk e-mailers, while participating ISPs would provide them to noncommercial e-mailers for free. The stamp creates an encryption in the header that the receiver’s e-mail decodes, safely delivering the message to the recipient’s inbox. E-mails lacking stamps would be sifted through spam filters. The important downside is that stamp or not, it doesn’t stop junk e-mail from disreputable sources.

E-mail has become the new way to stay in touch. And just as e-mail is the preferred mode of communication for many people, so, too, is it a preference for some direct marketers. Bill Gates announced in February at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” While that certainly is a worthwhile goal, Mr. Gates has also declared that the solution to spam is economic. Indeed, the idea of making spammers pay is tantalizing. Ultimately, however, the solution to the spam problem must be technological.

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