The Root of all Evil

The Gnu Hunter writes:

Yahoo and Microsoft are looking at ways of imposing a postage fee for emails as a way of reducing the ever increasing number of junk emails or spam.

No, Yahoo and Microsoft are looking at ways of making more money by charging for something that was previously “free” and are using junk mail as an excuse to do so. They will only impose this charge if they can impose it.


40% of the many millions of emails sent each year are spam mail. Whoever could tax it would be worth a fortune. Whoever reaped the tax would be very reluctant to eliminate spam. Spam would be here forever. It would be renamed to non optional business marketing or some such.

I’ve thought about similar things to what Microsoft are proposing, and been met with similar criticism trying to discuss it. Criticism’s fair enough, but this criticism is, I think, terribly misguided.

First, I’ll note that the response isn’t a rational one. There’s two ways of responding to ideas you don’t like: one is to say it’s got evil outcomes, the other’s to say they’re inspired from evil motivations. The former’s a sensible thing to analyse, the latter is both impossible to know and useless to boot. Gnu Hunter’s rant is entirely attacking Microsoft’s motivations, rather than analysing what harm it will do, or what good will be obtained. So it can be dismissed on that basis.

But the motivation being attacked isn’t one that you’d expect a rabid right-winger to attack: it’s the profit motive. The argument’s one that left-wingers make regularly: that a good service, which is currently readily available and effectively free to use, is going to be taken over by evil corporate influences, made unaffordable and otherwise ruined, all in the name of the unholy dollar. Compare Gnu Hunter’s remarks with “The Government’s looking at ways of making more money by charging for University places that were previously free, and are using the current funding crisis as an excuse to do so”, for example.

The real flaw here, I think, is due to a knee-jerk fear, almost a loathing, of money and the profit motive. Not an unjustified one, perhaps, but rather an unjust one.

Going through the post above in too much detail is a bit cruel — it’s presumably intended as a dashed off comment, not a thoughtful response — but I’m going to do it anyway. The first claim is that Microsoft “are looking at ways of making more money by charging for something that was previously free”. Is that bad? One of the big things that’s happened in our culture recently that I find terribly amusing is the sale of bottled water. Tap water’s perfectly drinkable in most places I go to, yet I quite happily shell out a couple of bucks for a bottle of water every now and then. Why? Mostly because it’s convenient, it’s cold, and I’ve got a lot more confidence it hasn’t been spat on, urinated on or thrown up on recently than I do with most bubblers around the place. Sure, it used to be free, but now some company’s making money off me for the privelege of having a drink of water. Actually it still is free — they’re still plenty of bubblers and taps around and as far as I know you can go into most cafes or pubs and get an glass of water without too much hassle.

The next comment is that Microsoft “will only impose this charge if they can impose it”. Except, well, they won’t do anything of the sort: if you want to keep receiving spam, and people want to keep sending it to you, and your ISPs don’t mind either, there’s nothing Microsoft can do to stop you. There’s no chance of anything being imposed against your will here at all. But chances are you don’t want to keep getting spam, and your ISP doesn’t either, so that one or both of you will be eager to play ball if it actually works out. Worst case, you can switch to using competing email software, and avoid whatever Microsoft and your ISP might try to conspire to get you to do. So this case is much the same as for bottled water: maybe there’ll be a pay-to-play option, but anyone who doesn’t like that can always keep using email exactly as they do now.

Another comment is “whoever could tax [spam] would be worth a fortune”. Well, that’s kind of true: governments are already doing that by income tax on the spammers, and by most standards, governments are worth a fortune. The real issue isn’t taxing spam though; it’s annihilating it; if the only way to do so is via a new tax, well, so be it. One way, possibly the only way, to stop spam is to increase the cost of sending an email to more than the value of a spam. The value of a spam is very small — it can take millions of them to get up to being worth a couple of hundred dollars — but the cost of sending an email is far smaller. If you don’t increase the cost of spamming (either directly like Microsoft are attempting, or indirectly by having stiffer laws or terms of service and stiffer penalties), then it’ll keep getting sent, and your only option is to try to get your computer to filter it out once it’s already gotten to you. That works, but it doesn’t work well.

Now, there’s an interesting conundrum here. Increasing costs is fundamentally evil. It’s inconvenient at best. By definition it’s wasteful. It goes against our drive towards efficiency. But if it’s the only way of stopping spam, there must be some good in it.

The trick is that we’re not trying to increase costs globally; we’re trying to reduce them. The particular costs we’re trying to reduce are on the reciever: the cost of anti-spam software and services, the cost of lost mail due to false positives when checking for spam, and the cost of wasted time and computer resources in dealing with email you aren’t interested in that nevertheless makes it through your filters. What we’re thus trying to do isn’t increase the costs, but shift them onto the individuals getting the benefit from spam, ie the spammers themselves.

In a sense, what that means is that we’re not talking about increasing the cost of sending an email, but rather increasing the price of sending an email. The difference is very subtle, but it’s important. Increasing the cost increases the friction in the system: it means that more time and energy and resources are being lost than is necessary. Increasing the price does not. If I want you to bake me a cake, and you say you won’t unless I spend an hour digging a hole in the ground, then fill it back in again, then that’s a cost. If you instead demand an hour’s wages from me, that’s a price. The difference doesn’t matter to me, but it does matter to both you and the person for whom I did an hour’s useful work. You because you know have some money you can use, and my employer because they’ve now had their garden hoed.

The logic is simple: if the number of spams to be sent is to be reduced, then the cost of sending spam must be increased. If the cost of sending spam must be increased, then spammers must either devote more money or effort to sending spams. The only question left is who should benefit from that extra money of effort: Microsoft, the government, the recipient of the spam, or the dread lord Entropy?

At the moment, it’s the recipient who pays the most — in wasted time, and in unnecessary annoyance — and entropy that does all the collecting. That’s doubly bad in my opinion. The technology to do this right, to have all the costs borne by the spammer, and any excess benefits accrue to the recipient, and to ensure the energy and effort expended and lost to entropy in sending a message remains minimised, already exists. It’s called money, and it allows the spammer to encode efforts and work she’s done in the past in an easily transferred form, and give that to someone else, who can than decode it into effort and work that he in turn finds valuable.

And yet, the possibility that money may become involved in something previously pecuniarily pristine is enough to inspire fear and horror in even the most educated and rational.

I find that really rather bizarre. But it’s nevertheless nice to see it in an avowed apparent right-winger: sometimes the differences between left and right seem far less surmountable than they have any right to be.

(For what it’s worth, the economics here seem to make sense: the cost of looking at a spam’s subject and sender and deleting it without actually reading it seems to be about a second for me, and at $20/hr, that amounts to about half a cent per email. Charging the sender half a cent per email is noise for most people (I send a fair bit of email, and it’d cost me about $2/month), and in any case can generally be made up from the profits you make receiving email. But by contrast, for spammers, it’s bankrupting: they’d need to pay me well over $300/yr to send me what they send now; email viruses would net me another $200/yr at the current rate. With a little care — less than goes into dealing with spam filtering rule sets, by my estimation — most of the obvious problems, such as mailing lists and server load, can be dealt with to at least not be significantly worse than they are now. While some new external effects will no doubt be introduced, all the ones I can think of encourage good trends over the long term.)

UPDATE 2004/02/06:

Maybe a good way of looking at this is thus: email postage is free to you as long as the number of emails you send is less than the number of spams you receive.

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