As I purge my inbox of three dozen pieces of spam every morning I’m reminded of a nature film I saw on cable a couple of years ago that showed a giraffe dying from an overwhelming infestation of fleas. The electronic equivalent of the giraffe may not be quite dead, but the technology of email has lost much of its value over the last several years because of the non-stop parasitical assault, not only because of the direct damage inflicted by all the spam but because of the side effects of the filters that have been put in place to hold back the tide.
The problem has become personal for me. My business requires me to send large documents to my clients on a daily basis. Years ago, FedEx was a huge expense for me; and every exchange of paper took a couple of days. Email increased my personal productivity enormously, but its value has steadily decreased because corporate defenses against spam intercept my attachments. In many cases, I have to follow up the submission of work product with phone calls so that busy managers can wade through a trash pile to rescue documents. I can’t blame the firms for reinforcing their defenses—I get from 100 to 150 pieces of spam a day, some of my clients get as much as a 1000—but the incremental cost of dodging the spam blocker adds up. Meanwhile, I have to be careful not to lose their messages in my own spam blocker.
Some of the costs of spam are obvious, and one can only guess how many of the same elderly population already ripped off by junk mail solicitations have already fallen victim to sales pitches for phony pharmaceuticals or have sent their credit card number to criminals claiming to be their internet service providers. There are hidden opportunity costs as well. Email could be a useful channel for legitimate advertising, for example, if it weren’t overwhelmed with trash, obscenity, and fraud. That’s a real loss, and not just for the corporations. Everybody’s so accustomed to complaining about advertising that it’s easy to forget its indispensable role as a source of information in an extraordinarily complicated world—imagine how much it would cost to provide public education about new technologies.
While serious law enforcement efforts might be able ameliorate the spam crisis—you have to wonder why more identity thieves and purveyors of bogus drugs aren’t prosecuted—the fundamental problem with email is structural. It doesn’t cost enough. As many people have noticed, spam would not be profitable if it cost even a few pennies to send a message. Even junk-mail advertisers have to worry about picking the right mailing list because a response rate of a percent or two is necessary to pay the freight. Meanwhile, since it’s free, the same spammers who send me an ad for breast implants at 10:12 follow it up with a pitch for penile enhancement at 10:13 and not because they know how eager I am to please everybody. At a nickel a pop, an ad would have to have something to do with its recipient. At a nickel a pop, also, sending targeted Internet ads for my own services might become economical.
I know nothing of the technicalities, but I gather that the only feasible way of creating a system with appropriate fees would be to create an entirely new and separate system. That may be a utopian suggestion, rather like the dream of getting rid of QWERTY. Over and beyond practical obstacles to reforming the system, any call for even a small amount of central control runs afoul of the libertarian ideology of many computer mavens. They maintain an almost theological faith that systems will organize themselves perfectly if only we let them alone. One small nickel for the man is one giant step on the road to serfdom for mankind. There’s another problem, too. If email generated a public revenue, we’d have to decide what to do with the proceeds—the point of the tax, after all, would not be to fix potholes on the information superhighway. That doesn’t bother me. If the swag from a spam tax went to build a swimming pool for Mayor Quimby, I figure we’d still be better off. But that’s me. I expect the universe to be perverse in spots. The others will go ballistic about the unnecessary taxation.
Things do not look good for the giraffe.