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Copyright 2003 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

The idea of e-mail postage gains currency

Saul Hansell NYT Monday, February 2, 2004 Should people have to buy electronic stamps to send e-mail?

Some Internet experts have long suggested that the rising tide of junk e-mail, or spam, would turn into a trickle if senders had to pay even a penny for each message they sent. Such an amount might be minor for legitimate commerce and communications, but it could destroy businesses that send a million offers in hope that 10 people will respond. The idea nonetheless has been dismissed both as impractical and against the free spirit of the Internet.

Now, though, the idea of e-mail postage is getting a second look from the owners of the two largest e-mail systems in the world, Microsoft and Yahoo. Last month, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that spam would not be a problem in two years, in part because of systems that would require people to pay money to send e-mail. Yahoo, meanwhile, is quietly evaluating an e-mail postage plan being developed by Goodmail, a Silicon Valley start-up.

"The fundamental problem with spam is there is not enough friction in sending e-mail," said Yahoo's manager for communications products, Brad Garlinghouse.

The company is intrigued by the idea of postage, Garlinghouse said, because it would force mailers to send only those offers that a significant number of people might buy.

"All of a sudden," Garlinghouse said, "spammers can't behave without regard for the Internet providers' or end users' interests. "

Neither Yahoo nor Microsoft has made any commitment to charging postage, in part because the idea still faces substantial opposition among Internet users.

"Damn if I will pay postage for my nice list," said David Farber, a computer scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who runs a mailing list on technology and policy with 30,000 recipients. Farber said electronic postage systems were likely to be too complex and would charge noncommercial users who should be able to send e-mail free.

"I suspect the cost of postage will start out small and it will rapidly escalate," he said. In the meantime, the big Internet providers, including Microsoft and Yahoo, in recent weeks have renewed talks that stalled last year about creating technological standards to help identify senders of legitimate e-mail. That way, spammers would either have to identify themselves or run the risk that users would discard all anonymous mail.

But for the big Internet access providers, or ISP's, the prospect of e-mail postage creating a revenue stream that could help offset the cost of their e-mail systems is undeniably attractive.

"Sending large volumes of e-mail involves costs that are paid for by the ISP's and eventually by consumers," said Linda Beck, executive vice president for operations at EarthLink. "Should there be some sort of financial responsibility borne by the originators of these large-volume programs? I think there should."

E-mail between private individuals, Beck added, should remain free.

Differentiating among classes of e-mail is one of the substantial technical difficulties that e-mail postage proposals face. In wrestling with this matter, academic researchers have proposed complex stamp systems in which each e-mail recipient sets a price for a message to enter his or her in-box. Gates talked at Davos about a system that would allow users to waive charges for friends and relatives.

Goodmail, founded by Daniel Dreymann, an Israeli entrepreneur, is developing a system that it hopes will be easier to adopt. It proposes that only high-volume mailers pay postage at first, at a rate of a penny a message, with the money going to the e-mail recipient's Internet access provider. The company suggests that the Internet providers share the payments with their users, either through rebates or by lowering monthly fees.

The Goodmail system is designed to work even if not all senders and not all Internet providers participate. A mass e-mailer would sign up with Goodmail, buying a block of stamps - actually an encrypted code number - that it would insert into the header of each e-mail message. If the recipient's Internet provider participates in the system, it decrypts the stamp and submits it to Goodmail. Only then is the sender's account charged a penny and the receiving ISP paid the penny, minus a service fee by Goodmail for acting as a clearinghouse. Senders do not pay for stamps that are not used, but they do pay whether an e-mail recipient reads the message or not.

Under this plan, Internet providers would still accept incoming e- mail without stamps. But that mail would be subject to the same sort of spam filters in use now, which can at times divert legitimate mail.

The Internet providers would deliver all stamped mail without any filter. Goodmail does not require that stamped mail be requested by the recipient, the so-called opt-in requirement of most other anti- spam systems.

"The very notion that I have to get permission to send you a marketing message doesn't make sense and is not good public policy," said Goodmail's chief executive, Richard Gingras.

Even so, Gingras said, Goodmail would require mailers to verify their identities and to take people off their mailing lists if such a request was made.

This kind of approach would require major policy changes by Internet providers, which all ban unsolicited e-mail even if they have little ability to block it.

In fact, some worry that big spammers will pay the postage.

Charles Stiles, manager of the postmaster department at America Online, said he was concerned that such a system might restrict the wrong mail.

"It is the spammers," he said, "who are the ones with the big pockets."

The New York Times

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