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Updated 11:00 AM March 15, 2004



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Canning spam, one penny at a time

"A penny for your thoughts" will have new meaning if a U-M research team can convince e-mail providers and the public that getting paid for receiving unwanted messages is a good idea.

Assistant Professor Marshall Van Alstyne of the School of Information (SI) is a member of the research team that says it has the answer to one of the Internet's most perplexing problems: how to can the commercial spam that annoys virtually everyone with an e-mail account. Estimates indicate that half of all e-mail buzzing around the Internet is spam.

The researchers are proponents of a "sender pays" system called the Attention Bond Mechanism (ABM), developed with doctoral students Thede Loder and Rick Wash. Both students are in the Socio-Technical Infrastructure for Electronic Transactions Program, a collaborative effort with SI, the College of Engineering and LSA. The team brings together unique skills in information economics, peer-to-peer systems and cryptography.

With ABM, unless e-mail senders are on the recipient's "white list" of approved mailers, the first unsolicited mail from them won't get through unless the sender pays.

Suppose MegaJunk Inc. wants you to read about its cheap software, but you've never done business with the firm. MegaJunk would be required to post a small sum of money (a "warranty") in order for its first unsolicited e-mail to be delivered.

In the meantime, as the recipient, you would have set a monetary value on what you think unsolicited mail is worth for you to open. Say you set the limit low, at a penny. If MegaJunk thinks its message is worth that much and attaches a warranty good for a penny, you would get the message. When you received the e-mail, you could accept it and MegaJunk would keep its penny. But if you found it bothersome and didn't want more, you could "cash in" the warranty; MegaJunk's penny would be deposited in the recipient's escrow account.

Say, however, that you deem your time worth 50 cents a message. MegaJunk's message, with only a one-cent warranty, would not get to your inbox in the first place. If you like a company sending you a message, you can add it to your white list, giving the company the right to send you further mail.

Suppose, though, that you decide to accept all bulk mail that comes your way as a way of padding your escrow account. Bulk mailers, says Loder, would catch on to you and probably remove you from their lists, even if it's a company that you want to hear from. In other words, honesty and ethics on the part of the recipient also come into play.

"By participating in this system," Wash says, "you help improve the quality of information exchange and reduce unnecessary waste and e-mail volume that clogs networks and increases costs that ultimately are paid for by consumers and businesses. In general, everyone's productivity increases, with the exception of the spammers."

The researchers are aiming squarely at spammers. "The purpose is to make spam too expensive for spammers to send," Van Alstyne says.

The ABM works, Loder says, "because it lets both the recipient and the sender cheaply negotiate the terms under which they both want communication. They do this without third-party human mediation or taxes."

The research team's next goal is to market the anti-spam technology. Van Alstyne says that if it were to catch on, the spam problem could be licked within two to three years.

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