Professor Marshall Van Alstyne of Boston University School of Management has a plan to win the war on spam.

He wants spammers to pay you for wasting your time. “We’re really trying to give you back what is a property right in your own attention,” he says. “Since interruptions are costly, what you’re basically doing is asking the sender to make these interruptions worth your time.”

Technology companies impose a cost on spammers by blocking spam. The government imposes a cost on spammers by locking them up. But to date, the potential profit for spamming continues to exceed the likely cost. Spam continues because it pays.

Leave it to an economist to price spammers out of the market. Van Alstyne describes his anti-spam scheme in “An Economic Response to Unsolicited Communication,” a research paper co-authored by graduate students Thede Loder and Rick Wash that should be accepted by a prominent economics journal in a month or so. He is proposing an “Attention Bond Mechanism,” money put up by E-mail senders as a form of spam insurance. In the paper, he argues that an attention bond designed to promote valuable communication can outperform technical solutions designed to block low-value content. Economics, in this theory at least, trumps technology.

This might be a matter of solely academic interest if it weren’t for the company Van Alstyne has been keeping recently — last week he briefed industry experts at Google, Stanford University, Sun Microsystems, and Symantec. Last year, he met with Microsoft and the Federal Trade Commission. Next month, he’s presenting the idea to the Federal Communications Commission.

Van Alstyne isn’t alone in his approach — economic solutions to spam are starting to enter the market. A startup company called Paritive Inc. hopes to commercialize the idea. Thede Loder, who studied with Van Alstyne, is the CTO. And a company called Vanquish Inc. late last year began selling to ISPs E-mail gateways that implement a financial bond system.

“Vanquish isn’t the first to propose sender payment systems for E-mail,” CEO Philip Raymond writes via E-mail. “But I believe that there have been no public references to the more subtle approach of sender liability prior to the end of 1997.” The subtlety here is that there’s no payment if the recipient isn’t irritated with the message.

By Thomas Claburn

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