AOL and Yahoo will soon roll out a new program to charge advertisers for guaranteed access to users’ e-mail boxes. It’s not the perfect spam-fighting program that some would have hoped for, but those critiquing the plan on free speech and other grounds are out to lunch.
The reason most people’s inboxes are overflowing with nasty bits of unwanted, unsolicited e-mail is because the economics of the entire system encourage it. Economists call the problem the “tragedy of the commons,” which occurs when individuals exploit common resources at the expense of others. That is, spammers send e-mail for free, yet it costs those receiving it billions for network maintenance costs and lost productivity time.
E-mail spam is a huge problem, because users have not been able to effectively establish property rights over their inboxes. One of the ways to potentially solve this problem is through an idea called e-stamps: in order to send mail, a sender would have to attach an electronic stamp.
In an ideal world, corporations and other people unknown to the receiver would pay for stamps, but individuals and corporations who know each other could issue the encrypted stamps for communication between themselves for free.
That is the theory. What’s happening in real life is a first step toward fixing the problem.
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