Blocking Spam the Old-Fashioned Way - Charging For It

I used to subscribe to Boardwatch Magazine, which started out in the days of computer bulletin board services, before the Internet was "discovered" by the general public. The then-editor, Jack Rickard, discussed a credible solution to spam starting in the April 1998 issue, in a reply to a letter in the "letters to the editor" column. The company has changed hands several times and I'm posting it here so I can refer people to it, as the link I had no longer brings up the text, and the search engine on the site doesn't seem to display any of the older Boardwatch information. (old link - )


Dear Jack:

Great Magazine. I'm not in the business but have been a subscriber for a couple of years and a reader for a lot longer. This note is on the subject of the spam debate. I've meant to write to you on many other occasions but never got around to it. Tell me what you think of this. It is very simple but could be effective, I think.

The problem is, as I see it, not so much reputable companies sending spam, but individuals and disreputable companies who spam using a false e-mail address. (After all if you are spammed by someone with a correct return e-mail address you can flame them or simply set up a filter rejecting e-mail from them in the future.) My solution would be to simply pass a law requiring all e-mail to have a correct return e-mail address. No serious penalty, just a ten or twenty dollar fine. Such a law might not even have to be enforced. Even nimrods like spammers should be given pause when their 10,000 address spam could possibly result in a 100,000 dollar fine. (10,000 e-mails x $10) If it does become necessary, the FBI or some other law enforcement agency could set up an e-mail address where (no return address, or false return address) spam could be forwarded. Filters could be set up so that only large offenders are prosecuted. Say 500, 1000, or even 5000 identical e-mail spams. Get a few of the worst offenders first, then if spam still remains a problem, continue to lower the number until it simply becomes too much work and too expensive to continue spaming using a false return address.

This would also leave service providers out of it completely, no muss no fuss.

P.S. If I'm missing something, I wouldn't be surprised. If this won't work, please enlighten me.


K. Owens


Interesting idea. I'm onboard. But I can tell you from experience with the caller ID debates of a few years ago that the privacy advocates will never let it fly. Some portion of our population views anonymity as a right of privacy. There have been somewhat popular mail forwarders for the express purpose of preventing the identity of the mailer being revealed. The Computers, Freedom, and Privacy crowd would have a group aneurysm at the thought of what you propose.

As for me, if you can't sign your name to it and have your mother read it in public next Thanksgiving at the meal, don't click the send button. But it's not the prevalent view. I view the drafting of laws regulating things with deep suspicion and grave hesitancy. That doesn't mean never do it. But care is certainly in order. It is very easy to try to cure one problem, get 99 percent of the population to jump through some very inconvenient and even expensive hoops, and wind up with the original problem plus seven new ones that you hadn't even thought of. Running the world through legislation is kind of like trying to pick up a glob of metallic mercury from a wax tile floor with a pair of chopsticks. It's entertaining, but also frustrating.

But I do agree, a minimum solution is to require proper identification of sender with all e-mail. And as far as I'm concerned, you can make it a felony.

Jack Rickard

A few issues later, there was a follow-up in the letters column.


Let me start by saying "ditto" what all the other readers tend to write about Boardwatch. Being a reader from the BBS days, I've seen a lot!

Spam Spam, everywhere Spam. Everyone should be thanking their Start Buttons that it is only in their e- mail box, and NOT on their plate! :D

Seriously, and I hope I am not repeating the dunderings of the millions of other whino's, er, whiners, but there are some serious issues presented from both sides of the table.

1) People DO want to advertise whatever they have to "SELL", whether it is a reputable company or the kid down the street wanting to send chain letters that can make us all millionaires in one month. 2) Someone DOES get stuck with the bill somewhere down the line for all of that stuff that ends up on servers and in inboxes.

What is the real issue, though? Jon Doe wants to sell his stuff, but Jane may or may not appreciate receiving the e-mail. Janes ISP may or may not care that every one of it's clients just got a 1k piece of e- mail.

The manner in which this advertisement is sent is ghastly, to say the least. By a CD with 45 gazillion e- mail addresses on it and click away.

I can't offer a suggestion of what to do or a solution for either side, except that everyone needs to stop for just a moment and look at the issue from both sides of the table. If it were a perfect world, everyone would do this, and then we would have people sitting down at the table, discussing the issue, and coming up with a resolution that would benefit everyone.

Heck, everyone could be a winner. Look at Juno E-mail for instance. They offer free e-mail that is supported by targeted advertising. If this idea was utilized at the ISP level everywhere, maybe there would be a way to allow targeted advertising.

Check it out. New user signs up for his service. He fills out his registration information, just like you do for everything else in the world today. The information doesn't get passed the ISP level. Every piece of e-mail I have looked at has a header that tells the e-mail client what the e-mail is, how it was made, etc. And additional line of coding (have to be standardized though!) could allow for targeted advertising. If an account wasn't tagged for the incoming advertisement e-mail, it would immediately be deleted off of the server, saving server space. In return the ISP would receive a payment (like Bob Morse's idea suggested).

But really Jack.... What we have to do is stop crying about the issues, stop trying to be spam police, and look at the REAL issues from both sides of the InBox, and come up with an idea that really works. TV didn't have ads in the beginning. Cable didn't have ads in the beginning. Newspapers didn't have ads in the beginning. I can go on and on, but eventually every medium has to capitalize on every bit it has to be successful.

Heck, Boardwatch didn't always have ads. But look at the ads on the pages within Boardwatch. They are targeted, and I personally don't mind looking at them. I get my content that I look for in the magazine and sometimes get a bit more when I find one of your PAYING advertisers service useful to me, or someone I know.

Nuff said. Thanks for your five minutes of time reading this. I feel better now that I got that off of my chest!

Michael Faith

P.S. Jack, please pass it on to the subscription guys NOT to kill me when my subscription expires. It was not my desire, but my wonderful daughter ended up in the PICU at the children's hospital recently, and we know what 12 weeks of ICU bills can end up being (actually, I don't know yet, you'd be surprised how many specialists there are for each bodily function you've got! :), so I'll have to be content with the online version and the copies that I thumb through at the newsstand!

God Bless!


The concept that there is a place for advertising via e-mail has some bare initial merit. I used to talk about treasure and trash being in the eye of the beholder and it might have been for a brief moment. But the bitter truth is that the spammers have so gruesomely soiled our network that no self-respecting marketer would use it at all as a legitimate advertising medium - at least beyond their own closed customer list. In practice, I DON'T get e-mail from Land's End, or from Hummer add-on parts dealers, or from anything I would be remotely interested in. I would take it further that I don't actually get spam even from legitimate companies offering things I'm NOT interested in. The only spam I get is from truly whacky rip-off artists and ne'er do wells offering pyramid schemes, netsex, or the tools so I too can spam. It is a total wasteland. And it comes in such huge numbers it almost makes e-mail unusable. Is anybody actually ordering this stuff?

I'm sympathetic to the role of the network as a great leveler allowing the smallest entrepreneur to work on an even field against DuPont, 3M, and Sears. But in practice, it just draws cranks and wackos who go beyond the quick buck artist level to just slimy. I really am not sympathetic to anyone I can see that is currently spamming. My concern was with the reaction ISPs are taking to SPAM, and the potentially bad effects it will have on them ultimately.

As to solutions, I may have one. I'm still working on it. Basically it takes your concept of free e-mail and turns it on it's ear. How about we all PAY for e-mail?

Yes, let's say that to send a piece of e-mail, we'll pay 32 cents - the same as a first class letter via street mail. But instead of giving it all to the post office, let's do something creative with it. Let's give a nickel to the ISP at the originating end, and a nickel to the ISP at the receiving end. Let's set aside 7 cents to run the clearinghouse and infrastructure needed to keep track of the money. And let's give 15 cents to the RECIPIENT.

Sounds mad doesn't it. But wait a minute. Most of us using e-mail legitimately, both send and receive e- mail. If I get 15 cents to read a message, and I spend 32 cents to write one, on balance e-mail costs me 17 cents. But if I want to spray a million messages out on the Internet to advertise my product, there is no offset on return messages, aside from a handful of flames, and I pay the full 32 cents. This sets up a cost differential between abusive use of the e-mail system to market stuff, and legitimate personal e-mail use. Mail is cheap for private use (17 cents) and somewhat dearer for mass marketing purposes (32 cents.)

I think you'll find end users reaction to spam somewhat different as well. If you send me junk, but I get 15 cents to hit the next key, which I'm hitting now for free, send it on. I'll take your money. Dufus.

Further, let's say there WAS a legitimate marketer wanting to reach me, but didn't want the hit of being associated with SPAM. Since everyone they send their sales pitch to gets fifteen cents for doing almost nothing, it rather puts it in a different perspective doesn't it. It's almost like getting flowers, instead of inconvenience.

I would propose this pay mail scheme be entirely voluntary and parallel to the current e-mail service. Nobody should HAVE to do anything. If you want to live in the swamp with the free e-mail service, go girlfriend. If you want safe harbor from SPAM, join pay mail and if anyone has anything sufficiently important to send you, they should care enough to cough 32 cents. If they care enough to cough 32 cents, I'll read it.

Once in place, the system spews some side benefits. It essentially fills the micropayments economic system that people have been wanting for years. You can sell your recipe's, poems, nuclear weapons plans, whatever for 15 cents to anyone that will pay 32 cents. The process could be reversed for mailing lists, so that you pay the sender 32/15 cents for each message they send - a kind of el cheapo subscription service. And if they send too many stupid ones, I can resign and join some other list elsewhere. All these guys slaving thanklessly maintaining these lists get a few bucks, and I suddenly find I'm getting a lot better quality messages from the list, which is now moderated as it turns out. You could even extend this to the point of opting out of messages with a certain subject line - turning off entire subjects and discussions from a mailing list you otherwise did want to stay on.

There are some server, distribution, and authentication issues, some of which are probably non-trivial but all doable. All of the numbers can be moved around. The basic point is to set up some ECONOMIC motivators to quell spam, not simply announce (via e-mail usually) that you don't like it and wish they would stop. Or wish some legislature will magically become wise in netlore and save you by criminalizing it, or by scapegoating ISPs everywhere and holding them severally and as a group responsible for everyone with a dialup account and a keyboard.

Free e-mail sets up a "free" marketing channel. With that kind of incentive, I can send 45 million e-mail messages hoping to get THREE orders at $12.95 each, and I'm in tall clover here. Never mind that 44,999,997 people were inconvenienced - I've got my thirty-nine bucks and I like this Internet stuff real well. If it costs me $12 million bucks to send those 45 million messages, $39 doesn't cut it and I'm outta here.

That's the heart of the problem. And until you are willing to attack this beast it at its heart, whining and whacking away at its fingers is going to have limited impact.

Jack Rickard


Dear Jack,

I just picked up the April issue of Boardwatch (I promise to get a subscription soon, I didn’t realize the newsstand cost you money), and I just wanted to toss in my two cents about your spam idea.

First, though, you’ve probably heard by now, that the state of Washington has passed a law prohibiting phony headers in e-mail, to try to curb spam. Since it can only apply to residents of Washington, enforceability seems problematic. (I found info about it at, but any search on ‘Washington’ and ‘spam’ should turn it up.)

Now, about your pay-mail proposal. If I were given access to both free-mail and pay-mail, here’s how I would like to use them. I would have the pay-mail open for anybody who’d like to pay me to read their messages, and set up free-mail to only accept messages from a select list of people. (If somebody wants on my free-mail allow list, they can send me pay-mail and a very good reason to let them on it.) I’d continue using free-mail, because I like using e-mail differently than snail-mail. I don’t want to spend 32 cents just to send a “Hey, you back from lunch yet?” to a friend. This may cause problems with phonied-up free-mail spam getting bounced all over the Net, but I doubt most users would be concerned with that, especially if they never have to see it.

And, of course, 32 cents is probably too high a cost for a single pay-mail, since legitimate direct marketers have trouble breaking even at bulk-mail rates. (Though the absence of printing costs may mitigate that.) The exact number is, of course, negotiable. Heck, maybe we can even set up pay-mail as an abstract currency, where each involved party gets a fraction of a credit that they can continue to use to subsidize their own e-mail, and only cash out when pay-mail prices are sufficiently high. (We’d want to trade in pay-mail contracts on the currency exchanges, of course.) Just a thought.

In all, it seems like an excellent idea. (I keep getting these nightmare images of pointy-haired bosses forcing their employees to subscribe to junk-mail lists just to improve the bottom line, but you can’t exactly plan technology around management idiots.) It would definitely end spam as we know it, without making the electronic world hostile to marketing by legitimate companies.

Has anybody volunteered to be the clearinghouse yet?

David Brandt


I actually envisioned the two e-mail systems operating quite in parallel forever, with individual users using either or both at whim.

You seem to indicate you would send mail for free, and accept mail for pay. I think you would also pay to send. Here’s why.

Let’s say you wanted to send a message to Rush Limbaugh to give him hell for those neckties he wears. Rush gets thousands of e-mail messages per day via free e-mail. He could move some of that to cash by simply setting up a pay mail account. And you would be more likely to get your message read by Rush, by sending it to his pay e-mail account, where he might get dozens per day, than to his junk free e-mail account, where he gets thousands. It establishes that all e-mail is NOT of equal importance - a kind of URGENT inbox where someone thought enough to spend 32 cents - still not enough to put off making your mortgage payment.

I don’t know that you really want to send Rush a message. But I think you’ll find instances where it would be very nice for a path through the noise. And admittedly, the 32 cents is a contrived number subject to change. Maybe $5 per message would be even better. I send overnight packages all the time at $9.95. Why? So they’ll get through.

I’ve heard from a number of people interested in serving as the clearinghouse. We’re looking at it.

Jack Rickard

If the thought of paying for formerly free e-mail bothers you, start adding up the minutes per week you spend downloading and deleting it and figure out what your labor cost for handling spam is right now. - Kevin

Return to Kevin's Home Page