SPAM….Jim Henley is not happy with Bill Gates’ proposal to solve the spam problem by forcing people to pay for email by buying virtual “stamps.” Not happy at all:

Bill Gates and others have suggested that “we” start “buying” e-mail “stamps” as a possible remedy for the problem of spam.

The cynic immediately doubts that Bill Gates and said cynic constitute a meaningful “we,” that Gates’ proposal can be translated to mean that “they” should start “selling” e-mail “stamps,” that Bill Gates has in mind being more of a “they” than a “we,” and that somewhere down the road he’s wanting the government to make us buy “stamps” for e-mail, and that this is pretty classic rent-seeking behavior on Bill Gates’ part.

I can see why Jim might think this. And certainly no one more richly deserves this level of cynicism than Bill Gates. If a proposal like this ever became reality I would enthusiastically support a constitutional amendment that banned Microsoft or any company remotely connected to Microsoft from ever participating in this market.

But with that out of the way, what about the merits of the idea? As a libertarian, I’m surprised that Jim doesn’t look more kindly on this proposal. After all, it’s just a way of enforcing property rights on our collective time and bandwidth. Why not let the market sort the whole thing out?

But no. In an odd reversal of roles, it’s the big government liberal who thinks that using market mechanisms to solve this problem has a lot of merit. In fact, I suspect that in the end there’s no other solution. The only possible way of reducing spam to tolerable levels is to find some way of making it economically infeasible.

I admit, though, that it’s still not clear to me what kind of technical mechanism could enforce this. But assuming there is some way of doing it, here are a few thoughts:

  • “Stamps” wouldn’t have to cost very much. Even a tenth of a cent would probably be enough to get rid of most spam, and this wouldn’t be a large enough amount to cause serious problems for private users or even for most businesses.

  • I wonder if there’s a way to get credited for all received emails? For most people (and businesses), this means that the charges would come close to balancing out. Only very heavy mailers would end up paying anything.

  • Maybe money isn’t the way to do this. Assuming there’s a way to enforce this in the first place, how about preventing email from being sent more often than once every ten seconds? There’s no charging, no “stamps,” no micro-payment system to set up, just an enforced delay. But it would probably make large scale spamming impossible.

I now receive about 100 spam emails a day on my main email account, and since I know that spam grows exponentially I suspect that this means the account will be useless within six months, regardless of what kind of spam filtering I implement. Since I’d prefer not to have to change my email address every year or two, I am eager for some bright young geek somewhere to figure out a solution to this.