Two ideas for ending spam

The problem with anti-spam laws, as I understand it, is that it’s too easy for spammers, especially offshore, to simply change their apparent identities, faster than anyone can catch up with them.

That’s true at the promotional end of things. But the same can’t really be the case at the sales end. Someone has to run those credit card charges. I suppose it might be hard to prove that the company collecting the money paid for the spamming, but there can’t be much doubt about it, really, can there?

So how about this: Change the rules for credit cards so that anyone who buys anything on-line based on an email without a genuine return address can challenge the charge when it comes through, just like someone who gets billed for something that he didn’t receive? The credit card companies would hate it, but they have more than adequate resources to police their own customers. Once it got to be impossible to make money by spam, most of the problem (not, of course, the Nigerian bank account part of it) would go away.

Or how about Plan B: Charge ISP’s for outgoing email, at some very low rate (say, a tenth of a cent per message). They’d have to figure out a way to collect from their customers, but in most cases the charge would be negligible. (I’m pretty active, and I figure I’d wind up spending a couple of dollars a month. Presumably, most ISPs would include the first couple of thousand messages in their base price.) However, sending a million spam emails would suddenly cost $1000, which is probably several times as much as it costs now.

Maybe a tenth of a cent isn’t the right number, but there’s certainly some charge that everyone would be willing to pay to send real email that spammers couldn’t afford to pay for spam.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the second idea failed for some technical reason, but I’d be glad to hear what that reason is. The first idea would work; the only question is how much of a headache false spam claims would be for legitimate commerce. But of course the credit card companies would have the option of firing the minority of cardholders who tried to make a business of collecting free stuff that way.

Update Lots of interesting feedback from readers.

1. Apparently, much modern spamming involves hijacking other people’s computers to send mail from. Obviously, a fee wouldn’t block that.

2. Right now, there’s no technical ways to count messages coming from any given ISP. Opinion seems to differ about how difficult that would be to fix.

3. A problem with the credit-card chargeback idea is that it would then allow spammers to attack legitimate retail sites. I can think of ways around this. For example, anyone ordering on line from a site where that person hadn’t ordered before could automatically be asked the question “Are you responding to an email message?” and, if the answer is yes, asked to cut and paste an authentication code from the email. That way, a retailer could decline all orders based on emails it hadn’t arranged to send. Still, the point that this problem has to be designed around is a valid one.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: