You want to get inside my e-mail inbox? Then pay meby Jonathan Rauch / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Like many people, I have passed a threshold in the last year or so. Spam has gone from one of life’s little nuisances to a threat to the usefulness of e-mail. Technologically, no quick fix is in sight. But it is helpful to think about what sort of fix we should be hunting for. The answer, I think, is this: I should have property rights to my e-mail inbox, and I should be able to charge you for admission.
The spam problem is a new instance of a very old dilemma: what economists call the tragedy of the commons. When any resource is both valuable and freely available, people will tend to overuse it. Moreover, everyone anticipates that everyone else will overuse it, so everyone tries all the harder to get in while the going is good. The tragedy is that everyone’s least-favoured outcome-the depletion or exhaustion of the resource-is assured.
Centuries of theory and practice have thrown up two effective remedies. One is to appoint a conservator with the power to mete out the resource: say, the US fish and wildlife service. The other is to create property rights to the resource and allow a market to develop. What people own, they conserve.
In the case of e-mail, the valuable resource at issue is my attention, and the problem is that access to it is free. People who really want to talk to me need to make no more effort than people who want to waste my time. My inbox is less like a mailbox and more like a dumping ground, through which I must sift to find items of interest.
Some people have proposed that the market-based solution to spam is to levy a public fee or tax for sending e-mail. In effect, the government would become postmaster general of cyberspace. But webheads are understandably reluctant to make the government the conservator of e-mail. Government oversight could open the internet to all kinds of regulation and tempt politicians to milk it for revenues. A bigger objection is that the government is notoriously bad at setting prices. Just imagine the equivalent of a postal rate commission for e-mail. No one-size-fits-all price could possibly be right, because we all place a different value on our attention. Some people even like spam.
Suppose instead that we gave me legally enforceable conservatorship of my mailbox. Then I could sue you for…