Esther Dyson weighed in in the New York Times on Goodmail-like services. Andrew Orlowski of The Register responded with his usual clueless misogyny.
Orlowski doesn’t just gratuitously bash Esther; whenever possible, he goes after Ann Winblad too. One hilariously stupid instance is this one, in which he fabricated a marriage between Ann and her business partner John Hummer. Hmm, Mitchell Kertzman is there now too. My mind is reeling at the possible menage’-a-trois possibilities …
Esther’s opinion, which I first heard her express almost 20 years ago, is this: Senders should pay readers for the time they spend in looking at email. And you know what? She’s right. Advertisers in broadcast, web, and print media pay us for our attention, by subsidizing the content we consume. So do event sponsors. Almost everything you read or hear about the technology industry is subsidized in one way or another by somebody who would like to sell something. (E.g., if you’re reading this free blog, I may be interested in selling you consulting services.)
Now to Orlowski’s response. Most of it was the kind of ad hominem trash he loves to dish out, especially but not exclusively about smart women such as Esther Dyson and Ann Winblad. Besides that, the main substance I found was “Think of the poor people who can’t afford to pay to send email?!” Well, Andrew — who are they writing to? Whoever it is, those recipients do NOT have to charge them for sending mail, whether that recipient is their mother, their electric company, or you. If you want to open your mailbox to, say, everything that comes in from the poor country of Nigeria, there’s nothing stopping you. (And you can still apply spam filters if you like.) Personally, I find that I get email from the occasional Third-World businessman or professor, but no starving Guatemalan peasant has ever found the time or motivation to send me a personal letter.
So what would my fees be? Without thinking it over at great length, they might be something like this:
Free — friends, acquaintances, family, return mail from tech support, etc.
Free — some news mailing lists
$.01 — other commercial mailing lists, if I opted in
$.25 — unsoliticited email from commercial vendors I have relationships with
$.50 — everybody else
I imagine the cost to senders would be roughly double the prices quoted above, which is OK.
One beauty of this system is that it would immediately turn spam into a matter of pure financial theft. I.e., you wouldn’t be able to spam unless you got somebody else to pay the email delivery charges, presumably by hijacking their computer and/or identity. Most users would have safeguards in place that made them go through security hoops if they wanted to send true spammishly large volumes of mail. And just as online theft isn’t really that big a problem today, this new form of online theft would probably also be a much smaller problem than spam now is.
Implementation of course isn’t easy. The trickiest part would probably be assigning prices to different senders, then adjusting the prices for different senders, and having the senders be automatically notified of the price adjustments. There’s also an antifraud problem, of a sort; if people are paid to get junk mail, they might make efforts to get lots and lots and lots of it to pad their bank accounts. (Wouldn’t that be just a wonderful recreation for smart teenage boys?)
But the technical issues, while non-trivial, are all solvable (or at least controllable — this scheme would indeed add more complexity that could then annoyingly malfunction). So what about adoption? Here’s one scheme that might work — email service providers might compete on the basis of not only being free, but of actually rebating cash to their users. This gets around what could otherwise be a bottleneck, namely the reluctance of consumer service providers such as AOL to share revenue with their customers.
What about nefarious uses? E.g., the government of China is all too eager to control information coming into the country, and this could be another tool. Hmm. I don’t have a fast answer. But I have even less of an answer as to what good would be done is this regard by refraining from using the technology in the rest of the world. After all, they can adopt it themselves if they want.
OK. I’m on board. How do we make this happen?