May 29

The Spam… It burns!

Insightful commentary on the future of spam.

He (or She) is right – Spam-management is likely to be one of the critical priorities for the future, before the entire Internet crumbles under the tragedy-of-the-commons Spam assault.

There is one “ideal world” answer, which would essentially stop spam in every possible permutation – the use of micropayments.


  • A micropayment (by you) each time you post a comment
  • A micropayment (by you) each time you link to a blog and it generates a trackback
  • A micropayment (by you) to the recipient of every email you send
  • A minipayment (by you) each time you sign up for an account, and then a micropayment each time you reach out to someone using that account – facebook wall messages, twitter posts, craigslist ads, /tells in MMOs, etc. The receiver will receive the micropayment.

I know, roll your eyes, micropayments are so played out. Well, I admit that they have been, and continue to be ahead of their time.


Every other solution I’ve heard proposed involves more complex Captchas. Captchas are a hurdle, but, by definition, not an insurmountable one (because they have to be simple enough for below-average humans to pass them). Spammers continue to develop ever-increasingly-sophisticated Turing Machines, and are probably on the cutting edge of some forms of pattern recognition/AI. Each time we come up with a test, the spammers will eventually beat it. Unless you believe that computers “can’t ever” be smart enough to pass the Turing test, you have to assume that no Captcha will stand forever.

Essentially, Captchas are like building a wall in front of a horde of oncoming Mongols. They will eventually get over it. Once over it, it becomes a useless bit of architecture.


Micropayments, on the other hand, create an economic cost for every attempt at communication. And for most people, who receive communications about as often (roughly) as they send them, this is no big deal. If I send out 10,000 messages next year, at $0.001/message, that will cost me $10. And if I receive 10,000 messages from other people, that will reward me with $10 in credits. If I am a big talker, perhaps I spend a few dollars a year to keep my account balance up. But the point is, I don’t spend so much money that it becomes economically meaningful to me.

Spammers, on the other hand, if they send out 10 million messages, are looking at $10,000 in expenses. That’s a lot more money, and not something that can be done “lightly”.

The biggest problem in all of this is the starting-up problem. No one wants to be first website to demand micropayments, and hassle their users with an extra sign-up step. But referring back to the article – that – the generalized willingness to setup a micropayment solution – is the shape of “Web 4.0”

The Scenario

Here’s how I think it could go down – Google, Yahoo, EBay, Amazon, Microsoft and various other major players hash out a protocol for micropayment transfers. Then, they license the protocol to other organizations to implement, with the rule that every licensee has to accept and reciprocate payments with every other licensee.

My next thought is that once money (yours, mine, etc) goes into the system, it can never come out again – the micropayment universe is essentially a financial black hole 🙂 – Why? To make it far less attractive as a target for hacking.

The Business Model

The Micropayment “Banks” would make money when you or I sign up our blogs to accept micropayments – a few dollars a year from a bunch of bloggers and smaller websites, a few more dollars from larger websites, etc, and you have a sustainable business model.


The Licensees would be obliged to keep their books transparent – how much cash they received, how much they received in micropayments from others, how much they gave out in micropayments. That might even be part of the overall software specification. Someone (or many someones) can audit the books of the various Micropayment Banks, and verify that all the flows check out – that no one is claiming more “micropayment credits” than they actually have to give out. Standard financial audits would verify that the money coming in to each organization was legitimate and clean.


This isn’t the most elegant solution in the world. Ideally there’s a solution that just involves the phrase “leave it up to the market”, but I can’t come up with one. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there…

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