Why Bill Gates' anti-spam plan won't work

Why Bill Gates' antispam plan won't work

commentary News flash from Davos, Switzerland: The end of spam is near! And it's going to come, Bill Gates predicted at the World Economic Forum, because we're going to make it unprofitable to send. Taken another way: Accepting unsolicited commerical e-mail could become a small source of added income for us all.

"Two years from now, spam will be solved," Gates reportedly told a "select group" of the already select group that gathers each year in Switzerland to do what the rich and powerful do, which I think is plan to become even richer and more powerful (doubtless at our expense).

Think about it: If Bill Gates has his way (as is so often the case), each of us would establish a price for accepting uninvited e-mail. Thus a company sending an e-mail campaign might have 50 cents at risk for each of a million e-mails being sent, or US$500,000 total. I bet that would make someone think before pressing the "send" button.

Of course, people and companies in our contact lists would be able to send for free as might certain other entities. And, of course, we'd be free to not accept the money if the e-mail was welcome.

We'd have to work out a whole etiquette for this. For example, would it be rude to collect the 50 cents from an old high school "friend" I didn't really want to hear from? Or will some of us set up toll-free e-mail addresses, the same way we have toll-free telephone numbers? Would I ever read my toll-free inbox? Depends.

Let's say I want an address where readers can send me an e-mail. Maybe that would be toll-free or perhaps I'd charge a nickel, just to stop some obvious spam. I'd promise you, dear reader, not to actually collect your nickel. If I did, I'd be a jerk.

Suppose, however, you're sending me a technical question. Perhaps the charge for that would be a buck or ten bucks -- but, for that, you'd get an answer. Maybe the collection system wouldn't let me take your money until I responded to you or until you indicated that my response was an OK solution to your problem.

Maybe I'd do this for charity -- send me your questions and I'll automatically donate the money to the Red Cross (which will then waste it a la 9/11). OK, bad example, but there's a women's shelter in my adopted hometown that really does need the support.

Of course, administering this will be a mess. Dealing with zillions of micropayments going to just about everyone can't be easy or fun. And that's where I think Bill's idea is going to run into a snag. It's almost like creating a state-run economy.

Better, I think, to do what we already do for communication: Charge postage. This is much easier than Bill's plan and, while not as certain a way to deal with spam, could probably accomplish an awful lot toward easing the strain on the world's inboxes.

If you wanted to send more than X amount of e-mail (per day, week, month, at a time, or whatever), you'd have to pay for it on a per-message basis. I don't know what the fee would be, but it would be "appropriate" to the task of stopping spam without making it impossible to send legitimate, commercial e-mail.

The money from this postage fee would be collected, perhaps at the ISP level, and would be used to fund the operation of the Internet. Or perhaps to make the Internet available to individuals or organisations that might otherwise have a hard time paying for their connectivity.

Speaking of which, Bill also announced the creation of a US$1 billion Microsoft fund that the United Nations will use to bring technology to underserved nations, starting with Egypt, Mozambique, and Morocco.

Since I know Bill's minions read this column and will give him a copy, I want to mention that I've noticed the recent news stories in which he has reiterated his intention of giving his vast fortune away (save a relatively paltry $10 million or so for each of his children).

I don't want to portray Bill as a glassy-eyed idealist, because he's as hard-driving and tough as they come. But I've said for a long time -- and Bill continues to prove -- that he's not in this for the money. Bill has a vision for a better world -- both through technology and good old-fashioned philanthropy. And that -- not the bucks or even the power -- is what I believe really drives him.

Wiping out spam -- which I think is going to take more than two years, FYI -- is just a part of Bill Gates' plan for a better world. And while I don't like everything he (and Microsoft) does, and while I'm suspicious of the plan's efficacy, I do respect the goal.

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