SXSW: Per-Message Email Charges Won't Fly

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Last month I wrote about stopping spam by placing a per-message charge on email. I think it's a bad idea. The proposal is getting a lot of serious attention, though, because Bill Gates is its most visible advocate. He points out people are willing to pay 37 cents to send a letter, so why not a penny for email?

I think there is ample evidence this just won't fly. John Levine has pointed out we've already been there and done that. There once were commercial email systems such as MCI Mail, which were supplanted by flat rate Internet email, and are now just a dim memory.

I don't think we need to reach into the distant past for a good example. How about celullar phone subscribers? At least for basic voice service, subscribers seem to demand a fixed rate subscription and will do anything to avoid per-minute charges. I think any Internet service that implements per-message charges will find themselves hemorrhaging subscribers.

This morning at SXSW, the "History and Lessons of the Cellular Industry" panel offered an opportunity to sanity check this theory. After the panel I approached Jeff Nelson of Verizon and asked him what he thought about switching from fixed rate to per-message charges as a spam solution. He discussed business models and was quite unapologetic that his goal was to get subscribers to pay as much as he could get them to. I was curious what he thought about this anti-spam proposal.

Like most people, just the mention of "spam" tripped his alarms. He said that spam is a huge concern for cellular providers. They careflly watch what happens on the net as a whole, which serves as a leading indicator for activity on the cellular networks. All the providers are worried and working to keep spam at bay.

I dragged him back to the question: what about switching from flat rate to per-message charges? He just rolled his eyes. He said under his breath, "If my Internet provider tried to charge me for email I wouldn't stand for it."

It was like he viewed per-message charges as a third rail issue. I think it shows that scheme isn't going to get very far.