by on March 18, 2006

Esther Dyson has an op-ed in the New York Times defending GoodMail. I agree with her insofar as she’s arguing this is an experiment worth trying, and that consumers are free to choose a different email service if they don’t like it. I think the anti-corporate hordes attacking this as the end of the open Internet are rather dramatically overstating their case.

However, on the merits of GoodMail itself, I don’t find her argument very persuasive. In particular, I don’t buy this part:

In the short run, AOL and others will serve as the recipients’ proxies. If they don’t do a good job of ensuring that customers get the mail they want, even from nonpaying senders, they will lose their customers. And in the long run, recipients will be able to use services like Goodmail to set their own prices for receiving mail.

In my case, I’d have a list. I’d charge nothing for people I know, 50 cents for anyone new (though if I add the sender to my list after reading the mail, I’ll cancel the 50 cents) and $3 for random advertisers. Ex-boyfriends pay $10.

Although this concept sounds appealing in the abstract, I suspect she’d turn it off in a matter of days. After all, a very effective anti-spam solution, challenge/response filtering has been available for years. Such a system will be just as effective as Dyson’s hypothetical pay-for-email scheme at deterring spam, and it has the advantage of not irritating friends who are forced to sign up for some micropayment system. Yet hardly anyone uses it, because it’s too much of a hassle.

The fact is, we all get email from previously unknown addresses that we want to receive–receipts from online shopping, email lists, emails from long-lost friends, notifications from friends of changing addresses, etc. Any anti-spam system that requires the sender to do additional work (or pay extra) to send us email reduces the chance that such email will get through. And for at least certain classes of messages, that can be a serious problem. Which means that you’d have to look through your rejected emails periodically to ensure that none fell through the cracks.

The fundamental problem with these kinds of schemes is that they’re supposed to reduce the hassle of exchanging email. But while it may eliminate the hassle of dealing with spam, it introduces new and probably more significant hassles connected to the payment system. That’s not going to make anyone’s lives easier.

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