Usage-based charging would add up to a massive effort and distraction
By Dave Crocker
August 6, 2003
Letter to the editor, in Technology Review

Vipul Prakash shows excellent insight into the topic of spam control. In particular, his post stresses three concerns that are not given enough attention in the dialogue about spam.

The first is that each spam control approach has significant, inherent limitations and will not "solve" the problem on its own. The second is that combining techniques is likely to make them far more effective, notably by applying relatively marginal techniques in constrained situations. This lets us obtain their benefits without seriously increasing false positives or false negatives.

Prakash's third notable insight is that the 30-year history of Internet mail service entails some key features we want to avoid losing. His list of three rules for anti-spam software should be a cornerstone to serious discussions about spam control mechanisms. It does not matter whether one agrees with his specific list. What matters is that serious discussion about mechanisms must seriously consider both the impact on the nature of e-mail and the limitations of the mechanisms. At the least, his list should prompt us all to approach changes tentatively.

We need to be particularly careful that changes implemented to control spam do not have catastrophic side-effects on the beneficial nature of e-mail. Those proposing changes often do so cavalierly, either dismissing the likelihood of the change, or the seriousness of the damage from it.

Barry Shein provides us with an excellent example of this error. In his latest post, he gives us the usual lecture about e-mail not being free. Prakash meant that there currently is no incremental charge for e-mail, and that that affords some very important benefits to the interpersonal and intercompany use of e-mail. With the movement of other communication services toward flat-fee (rather than usage sensitive) charging, it is strange to see anyone blithely call for moving in the opposite direction.

The underlying costs of doing usage-based charging for frequent communications, such as telephone calls or e-mail, are astronomical. The negotiation, infrastructure, data transfer, computation, and administration all add up to a massive effort and distraction.

"Negotiation" refers to the small matter of deciding how much to charge and how to distribute the proceeds. Besides the very legitimate question of what is a fair distribution, there will be an absolute feeding frenzy as folks jockey for position at the money trough. We saw it when charges were first imposed for DNS registrations; the potential revenue for usage-sensitive e-mail charging is vastly larger.