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Wednesday, August 13, 2003

It's The Economics, Stupid

No, I'm not calling you "stupid," I'm merely paying homage to a rising trend in the war on the gray goo that is unsolicited commercial email, a.k.a. spam. Joi Ito has just declared email "officially broken," and there aren't many who would disagree. Filters become by turns more sophisticated and more invasive, to the point where "[t]o pick the right solution, you don't need a product review—you need a personality test." What to do, what to do?

An approach that seems to be gaining momentum is "Hit 'em where it hurts—in the pocket book," and the burgeoning economic spam war has at least two fronts. The first would put spammers out of business through legislation and litigation. One example of this approach is highlighted in Keith Hammonds' Fast Company article, "The Dirty Little Secret About Spam." The article looks at the Inbox Defense Task Force and its "1-2-3 Solution To Spam:"

  1. Find the Spammers
  2. Create Courtroom Quality Documentation
  3. Enable Prosecution and Private Legal Action.

Well and good, but the obstacles are formidable:

When it comes to email marketing, this is the reality: What the good guys want and what the bad guys want are more or less the same thing. J.P. Morgan Chase and Kraft U.S.A. promote credit cards and coffee in ways that aren't so different from the tactics employed by anonymous peddlers of porn and gambling. "Legitimate" marketers would rather the spammers disappear — but not if that means quashing the opportunity that both groups enjoy.

If the "stick" approach is doomed to being hamstrung by powerful business interests, perhaps the key lies with the "carrot." This is what began to dawn on me almost a month ago, when I started looking into an email I'd received that referenced Global Removal and "The Official Do-Not-Email list for bulk-emailers." I was immediately suspicious and skeptical—fending off the day in, day out assaults of clever spammers will do that to you—and said so. Within a few days I heard from Tom Jackson, Global Removal's CEO (more here), who convinced me the company is on the up and up, and that it too has a "1-2-3" approach that is undeniably compelling:

  1. Charge a reasonable fee for opting out ($5.00 per address)
  2. Use the fees to make it more attractive for spammers to leave you alone than to spam you
  3. Use secure technology that prevents spammers from abusing the system.

"Win, win, win," as Tom told me, and I'm starting to see his point. Some may still find this strategy objectionable as a form of permissive extortion: why should I have to pay to secure space on an effective opt-out list? It's a valid argument, but there are at least two responses: a comprehensive, broadly applicable legislative solution still is a long way off, and, in any event, more flies are famously caught with honey than with vinegar. Consider the FTC's Do Not Call registry. It's a huge step forward but still not a complete solution. Would you pay $5.00 for one that was? I think in the case of spam many would answer, loudly and with relief, "yes," thus creating an economic incentive that would at least complement, and maybe surpass, whatever legislative solutions may be in the offing.

[Update] Checking the link cosmos for Global Removal produced these additional thoughts from the "this can't work!" and "why should I pay?" perspectives:

[Update] The Miami Herald, "Solicitors dialing 'L' for loophole in no-call law:" "[]Robert Bulmash, the president of Private Citizen, an Illinois-based group that litigates against unwanted callers...predicts that telemarketing calls will be cut by as little as 25 percent because of telemarketers' exploitation of loopholes and other strategies." [Via ILN]

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