AOL/Yahoo Email Tax to Stop Spam: Why It Won't Work

There's been quite a bit of media play about AOL and Yahoo's plans to adopt a quarter-cent "email tax" or "stamp" or whatever you want to call it, and we're here to tell you it's horseshit. While this utopian vision of data exchange for pennies a day—the price of a cup of coffee—makes for nice Business Section copy, this will fail in practice. And by "fail in practice" we mean "never, ever get off the ground."

Their theory is this: if you have to pay to send email, you won't send spam. This theory has a gaping hole—spammers will pay to send you spam. It all depends on your definition of "spam"—and how lax AOL or Yahoo's definition will be.

Our thoughts after the jump.

The only true anti-spam method is challenge-response, AKA the spammer Turing test. ("Hi, this is Joe's mailbox. Just hit reply to prove you exist and you'll never see this message again.") This test already costs plenty in terms of CPU cycles and bandwidth and the pay-for-play vision is a distant cousin to this same process. ("Hi, this is Joe's mailbox. Pay me to send this message.")

The way AOL's system works is frustratingly similar to the Marijuana Tax—you pay for "stamps" in order to access AOL's bulk email system. If they pay, organizations like the Red Cross and Red Envelope can spam you willy-nilly while the rest of the po' folks with the penis pills will have to contend with spam filters—the same filters which they have been bypassing quite handily already. This sounds like a way for these big guys to get a little cash and for the other big guys to feel like their doing their part in not pissing you off.

Trust us, guys, you are pissing us off.

It's the mail handling protocols that are broken. The creators designed them to ensure ease of use, which led to the rise of spam. What we need here aren't ways for AOL and Yahoo to bankroll their next corporate retreat in Bali, but an entirely new system of email "subscriptions" which ensures that email to and from the folks from whom you want to receive email makes it to your mailbox, and everyone else's is buffeted back. This will take a concerted effort by open source/academic folks to adopt and maintain this new system which will then trickle down to the corporate level. Of course, new systems for spam-resistant email have been in the cards for years, but no one—even people not trying to make money on the side—have been able to come to any sort of agreement.

Let's talk about next-gen mail handling protocols in the comments, because there has to be a better way.

E-mail charging plan to beat spam [BBC]