The Solution To Viruses Is NOT Charging For Email

Jeff Taylor from Hit & Run writes….

“If you haven’t at least encountered the Sobig virus in your inbox you must not get much email. Estimates are that 75% of all mail could be Sobig or a Sobig-caused error message. Time to retool the system.

The only possible solution is sender-pays email. Right now we have a classic tragedy of the commons situation where spammers and abusers have the most incentive to turn the email network to their own purposes. Service providers correctly make no warranty about the integrity of email. Look at your terms of service agreement and you may find that email is defined as an “added benefit” quite apart from the connection you buy. If so, then your email could go away forever tomorrow and there is nothing you could do except find another provider.”

I work for an ISP wholesaler and we deal with spam and virus related issues every day, so I know what I’m talking about on this issue. Charging for email is a BAD idea that’s not going to make a serious difference in the amount of spam or viruses on the net.

First off, Internet Service Providers are NOT going to voluntarily start charging people for email. That’s because they’d immediately lose all their business to their competitors who don’t charge for mail. So it would take new laws — something Taylor doesn’t seem to want (with good reason I might add) — to make that happen.

But even if ISPs started charging for outgoing email, it’s not going to make a serious dent in the amount of spam and viruses on the net. The spammers will just start sending email from ISPs in other nations that don’t charge for email. So what are you accomplishing there besides changing the location the spammers send mail from?

As far as home users who’re getting infected with viruses goes, the problem there is really ignorance more than anything else. I did tech support for more than a year and I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of people I talked to had absolutely no idea what they were doing. And why would they? It’s easy for those of us who have been on the net for a while to forget, but computers are fairly complex if you’re learning them from scratch. When you start talking about firewalls and keeping your virus scanner updated to someone who barely understands the concept of double clicking on things to open them, they are going to have a lot of trouble figuring out what you’re talking about.

So what is the solution? In my opinion, it’s going to be technological. Over time, the ISPs are going to get better at blocking spam and viruses and the automatic update features like the ones on Window’s XP (although XP itself is a mass of security holes) are going to help insure that security fixes for problems are going to be quickly and nearly automatically installed DESPITE the fact that the end user isn’t very knowledgeable.

In any case, charging for email would only going to add a new layer of government bureaucracy & unnecessary costs while doing very little to address the spam and virus issues. That’s not a road we want to go down…

***Update***: I couple of people in the comments section made points worth addressing.

First off, nhmj says…

“I disagree with you about the fix.

What will eventually happen is that one of the big email providers will agree to block all email from any server that initiates spam. This will immediately appeal to most email users and the other email houses will jump on board to prevent customer loss.

The server providers then have an economic interest in preventing spam. If they don’t they will lose all non-spammer clients since their email can’t be sent to anyone.

So really, all we need is one email provider to take the first step.”

This happens now and it’s a huge, but sometimes necessary pain the butt to everyone concerned. Sure, it sounds good to block email from a provider that’s spamming, but what happens when a spammer from AOL hits you and you end up blocking them? Your tech support starts getting lots of call from people complaining that they can’t send an email to their son/daughter/friend/nephew/business, etc on AOL. You have to remember that it’s not like there are just a few ISPs all these spammers are coming from (although some are worse than others), they’re everywhere. Because of that, it’s not practical to simply ban whole ISPs over spammers.

Smalloy writes (in part)…

“Let’s put aside the argument of whether or not charging for outgoing email is a good idea or not and examine whether or not limiting where the spammers can come from is a good idea.

If all the spam had to come from servers in Korea, for example, then I’d live a spam-free existance, because I could block ALL mail from Korea without it affecting me in the slightest.”

While it is a good idea to limit where all the spammers come from in theory, it’s very difficult to actually make it happen in practice. For example, just for the heck of it, let’s say that the United States mandates lifetime prison sentences for spamming and all the spam kings immediately go abroad. Well, you still haven’t really improved on the situation enough to make a difference because it’s not practical to block out emails from the whole rest of the planet who are of course going to ignore US law. So even if you moved all of the spammers off-shore, it wouldn’t make a dent in the amount of spam hitting your inbox. This is why it’s pointless for Congress to try to legislate spam out of existence.

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