Thursday, March 09, 2006

Spam and "Taxes"

All of us experience spam e-mails, and probably on a daily basis. Most of us engage in some form of self-help (albeit with the help of our friendly software providers) to stop unwanted ads from reaching us. A story in a recent BNA report on Electronic Commerce highlights a scheme by AOL to impose "taxes" on bulk e-mailers. The idea is that the "tax" will deter bulk e-mailers from sending the mail, which is rankling free speech advocates and nonprofits, as well as the scam artists out there who send much of the spam.

First of all, "tax" is a misnomer - it is really a fee imposed by a private company. Using the term "tax" would be like saying your landlord taxes you for your apartment. Or that Starbucks -- I mean, Java n' Ice (at Rockbrook Shopping Center in Omaha, which is owned by my nephew Steve) -- taxes you for latte and a gelato. We have enough real taxes to worry about without expanding the list for private charges. (And hey, the blog is free, so please don't mind my little plug for Steve's store.)

As for the substance, I have no problem with AOL doing this. But then again, I'm not a mass e-mailer or an AOL customer. (I think they call them "members" -- another terminology problem, but we'll let that one pass.) It remains to be seen what will happen if a fee is imposed. It might mean that the "scam artists" trying to sell me stocks or pharmaceutical enhancements of various kinds would, in fact, be economically deterred from sending them. This would mean only the well-heeled spammers would send things on, and that could at least limit the total quantity.

Nonprofits and political organizations don't like the idea, as it imposes friction in their communications. is quoted as being against the concept because it might nip incipient organizations in the bud before they can attract millions of dollars in support. This is a fair point - the world of free e-mailing has made communications easier, and this has helped politics and nonprofits. But even good causes (and I don't put MoveOn in that category, for the record) must pay their way somehow. In effect, the price we all paid for free communications was massive advertising -- there is no free lunch. (But there is good coffee at Java n' Ice, and Ice Cream, too.)

AOL could become a haven for spam that is guaranteed to be delivered to your mailbox, if the price is high enough. Then, I suppose, AOL could impose more charges for its users who want to be free of those communications, thus leveraging its position. (This is much like the phone company charging me to block solicitation calls.) Or software could be developed to stop all mails from others that are not on your approved list.

But the great thing about the internet is that it allows us to choose. Companies that want to snatch away AOL customers will have a wedge handed to them by AOL practices that offend -- and this may keep them from imposing these fees for guaranteed delivery of spam. Or others may flock to AOL because they like the convenience of having most of it blocked. Let the competition continue free from government interference.


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