Would an E-Mail Surcharge Help Deter Spam?
Brian Gongol

Spam, or unsolicited commercial e-mail, is sent in staggering volumes -- to the tune of two-thirds of all e-mail traffic in 2005. AOL and Yahoo have announced plans to test a system charging $2 to $3 per 1,000 messages to allow bulk mailers to bypass regular spam filters.

Some of the potential consequences (good and bad) follow:

A Surcharge May Act as a Deterrent to Some Bulk Mailers
People send unsolicited bulk e-mail because it's a virtually-zero-cost method of soliciting consumers. By introducing a marginal cost to the process, the AOL/Yahoo plan will certainly discourage some bulk e-mailers from sending spam. Those likely to be deterred are those who presently have the lowest returns from the messages they already send -- in other words, the spammers who presently make the least from spamming already.

A Surcharge Would Have Little Impact on High-Return Bulk Mailers
Before there was spam, there was bulk postal mail, which costs at least 12 cents per item to mail, plus printing costs -- vastly more than e-mail. Yet direct mail remains a profitable strategy, especially for credit cards and other financial services. Spammers who get a high rate of return from their unsolicited messages won't be significantly deterred by a surcharge of less than a penny per message delivered.

A Surcharge Would Fail to Change Consumer Behavior
Bulk e-mail solicitations would end forever if consumers simply didn't respond to them. Unfortunately, someone is responding -- which means the spammers will continue sending. The only way to completely eliminate spam is to make it completely unprofitable, and without changes in consumer behavior, that simply won't happen. To completely do away with spam, consumers would have to completely and totally reject every unsolicited message they ever receive. Failing that, a reduction in consumer-response rates would have a proportional impact on the profitability of sending spam. A surcharge system fails to influence consumer behavior.

A Surcharge Imposes the Costs of Spam Upon Legitimate Senders of E-Mail
If legitimate senders of bulk e-mail, like the Red Cross, pay to have their messages bypass spam filters, then the surcharge essentially causes those legitimate senders to subsidize the costs of deterring spam. In other words, by paying to brand its messages as "legitimate," the Red Cross is forced to bear the costs of keeping other messages out. This upside-down relationship forces "good" senders to bear the costs of "bad" senders' behavior.

An E-Mail Surcharge of Any Type Sets a Bad Precedent
One of the best results of the rapid expansion of the Internet has been the delivery of a huge number of positive externalities -- essentially, benefits to society that weren't necessarily intended or paid for. These positive externalities have emerged, in part, because of the free and open nature of Internet access -- the fact that many services and features of the Internet are available to the user at no direct cost. Except for a handful of exceptions, most Internet content is free to the user. This has essentially subsidized mass access to the Internet. Unfortunately, adding a surcharge of any type to e-mail, even if intended as a deterrent to spam, sets a precedent that could lead away from the widespread "free" nature of the Internet.