Economists versus spam

The short history of society’s fight against spam–usually defined as unwanted commercial e-mail–may be about to pass into a significant third phase. In the first phase, it was geeks who led the resistance, using techie weapons such as e-mail filters with fancy Bayesian mathematics. In the second phase, politicians joined in, eager to get their names on to new legislation–in America, for instance, 36 states and Congress have passed laws of some sort against spam. Now, in the third phase, the economists are taking over.

The market opening for the economists is obvious. Both the geeks and the politicians are widely seen to have failed miserably.

Great writing from The Economist but it is not clear that we have an answer that will be accepted. The obvious solution is to price email. Even at a penny per email most spam would become uneconomic. The Economist argues, however, that internet culture is against pricing and micropayments are more expensive than they are worth. They recommend instead several groups who are creating clubs of approved bulk emailers. The emailers who join are guaranteed passage of their email past spam filters – club members either pay to get on the list or are fined if recipients complain. Unfortunately, these ideas only work indirectly by making the job of spam filters easier. If the clubs take off, a positive tipping point may be reached but that is a big if and in the meantime the plan assures that for many people spam will get worse before it gets better.

This economist has another idea. The problem of spam is really a negative externality generated by the people who actually buy the products spammers offer. Thus, I suggest sending out fake spam and prominently posting the names of all those who respond….. What product to advertise in the fake spam? I suggest, “length enhancers.”


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