Using electronic stamps on email as a way to filter out spam or, at least cut down on unsolicited commercial email, has been considered by experts for some time now. Whether the discussion is raised in an email hoax or a serious proposal by a fellow ThinkerNetter, a practical solution is currently lacking. But what if the stamp charge is not collected by the government or ISP, but paid to the email recipient? The benefits there could be sufficient motivation to explore possible implementations.
Practical and security issues aside -- which I'm fairly confident can be solved -- let’s think about the possibilities.
One possibility would be to have ISPs charge or credit each user's account per email sent or received. But this would require an elaborate protocol of transactions among ISPs and does not allow users to differentiate messages. Another potential enabler would be electronic cash (as I proposed in an earlier article) with encrypted digital tokens that represent a monetary value, which can be exchanged between two parties just like normal currency.
Suppose you could attach a small amount of money to an email, just like putting a stamp on a post card? But instead of the payment being collected by the postal service, the recipient receives the money. The funds thus received can be reused for subsequent emails, or accumulated and at some point redeemed or deposited. Filtering spam from your inbox will then be a no-brainer. Emails with no money attached will still be delivered, and you could set filters to receive opt-in newsletters and mail from trusted sources. If spammers do attach money to emails, so much the better!
For companies or organizations wishing to send out a serious mailing, attaching 1 cent to each message when e-mailing 1,000 messages still only costs $10. If people agree to attach a slightly larger amount, say 10 cents or a quarter to emails with a personal message, your balance will remain neutral as long as you send out as many emails as you receive. You could easily prioritize messages in your inbox by the amount attached, to make sure that important messages get across first.
Imagine the effect this would have on chain letters and hoaxes. Instead of a mindless forward-to-all, people would actually think and, it is to be hoped, verify the message. Legitimate “please-help-a-sick-child” fundraisers and other charitable initiatives could easily collect donations via emails.
The introduction of electronic cash requires a leap of faith, besides a lot of intellectual and political effort. You'd need certified applications or devices in all terminals and intermediate systems to prevent illegal copying of the tokens. I’m still waiting to hear an argument strong enough to convince me that the risks involved would be worse than the existing means to store and transfer value in terms of loss, theft, and fraud.
If we consider the alternatives -- all the spam we have to weed through, and all the times our legitimate messages have been blocked by spam filters -- we could decide that taking such a leap of faith is justified, instead of classifying spam-control a goal that is unachievable.
— Leo Nederlof, independent telecom consultant