Spam is what happens when users are unable to assert attention rights. Spammers force people to give up their attention even if it's just long enough to press "delete" and sometimes trick them into paying money or giving up confidential information.
Enter the attention bond. The idea is that people or companies sending e-mail can't reach the in-box of someone with whom they don't have an existing relationship unless they promise not to waste a recipient's time. Senders would put up small monetary bonds, held in escrow and seized if they break their promises. Senders who aren't willing to post bonds wouldn't get access to in-boxes.
"We're really trying to give you back what's a property right in your own attention," says Marshall Van Alstyne, a professor at Boston University's School of Management who co-authored a paper on attention bonds. He's met with the Federal Trade Commission, Google, Microsoft, Stanford University, and Sun Microsystems to discuss attention rights. "Since interruptions are costly, what you're basically doing is asking the sender to make these interruptions worth your time," he says.
Some anti-spam vendors and startups are working on bond systems. If implemented, they would surely draw cries of foul from brute-force marketers. But such systems would give marketers who have done their homework a chance to drum up business with well-targeted mailings to recipients who won't cash the bonds if they're interested in the content, products, or services being offered.
Anti-spam vendor Vanquish and the Email Accountability Initiative, a group that counts AT&T and IBM as members, plan to unveil a free open source, self-installing, bond-sniffing application that will let Internet service providers check for evidence of sender liability.
If a bond is detected, the message gets a free ride past challenges, spam filters, and blacklists. If the recipient is displeased with the message, he or she has the option to seize the bond, requiring some form of micropayment or ISP-issued credit.
Vanquish CEO Phil Raymond acknowledges that the bond concept faces hurdles: Web users may find it confusing, and creating a marketable right to attention requires a lot of evangelism. If there's no proven market for attention to support the infrastructure, vendors and businesses won't participate.
Ken Slaughter, CEO of Active Internet Communications, a provider of wireless and dial-up Internet services, uses anti-spam hardware from Vanquish that works by using a challenge response system: Senders must answer challenge questions, which weed out computer-generated mass spam mailings. Slaughter says his Vanquish hardware already can detect bonds, but there aren't any bonds for users to seize yet. "We need to get to the next phase, where lots of companies out there have bonds," he says.
The extra processing that Vanquish's system requires is insignificant and changes to the basic e-mail infrastructure aren't necessary, Raymond says. "There are still naysayers," he acknowledges. "There are people who feel that any introduction of economics into [e-mail exchanges] bastardizes the free roots of the Internet."
Bonds may not be the answer, but they're an idea worth paying attention to.
Illustration by Viktor Koen
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