Commentary > Wastler's Wanderings
Spam -- time for the idiot tax
The industry won't impose a cost on e-mail senders. So let's tax the stupid people who reply.
June 25, 2003: 12:56 PM EDT

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Whoever is buying the herbal Viagra ... please stop. It's not going to help.

Same with the enlargement stuff -- male or female. God gave you what you have. Come to terms with it. Get karma.

And those of you who believe a complete stranger is going to show you how to become a millionaire. ... I'm going to tell you right now: You are never, ever going to be one. You are too stupid. Turn off your computer.

Looking at spam makes you wonder how anybody is so gullible. But apparently somebody is, otherwise spam wouldn't exist. Yes, Virginia, somebody somewhere is buying the "one-hour fat-loss miracle."

And because e-mail is so cheap, spammers don't need a lot of people buying their junk to make their marketing pay off. Sell three jars of herbal whatever at $45.99 apiece (what do you figure the mark-up is?), and you've more than made up whatever you spent getting 5,000 e-mails out (about 50 cents).

Yeah, 4,997 of us get spammed because three people believe in pixie dust.

The obvious answer is to change the equation and tax e-mail. Or put some sort of limiting fee on e-mail. Virtual stamps. Anything to put a cost on e-mail and thereby alter the economics of spam. After all, the reason we aren't choked with junk mail at home is that there is a cost associated with using the U.S. postal service, even at bulk rates.

Unfortunately, the experts tell me this is impossible.

"It's been proposed a number of times," says John Mozena, vice president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. "... The problem is nobody can come up with a good system, so it sort of falls into the 'wouldn't it be nice' category."

"You're not going to get a universal solution for the Internet because it is not uniformly regulated," adds Vince Schiavone, president of ePrivacy Group, an anti-spam software company.

There is no central authority for the Internet. And no Internet company is going to move forward with a mechanism for charging for e-mail unless everyone is going to do it. And debates about taxing e-mail open up arguments about fairness (big guys with money versus little guys without) and taxing other Internet transactions (see business shudder).

And so, instead of a simple economic solution, the experts start proposing complicated technological cures and legislative panaceas for punishing spammers (if you can find them).

Problem is, I'm kind of an Oddball type of guy. Most likely you are, too.

You know, Oddball ... the tank commander from the 1970 classic, "Kelly's Heroes" from Warner Bros. studios (a corporate cousin, not that it matters).

Asked in the middle of the battle why he wasn't helping his mechanic, Moriarity, fix the tank, Oddball replied, "Hey, I just ride 'em baby. I don't know what makes 'em run."

Isn't that the case for most of us that use the Internet and e-mail?

Take the Oddball view  
Take the Oddball view

You don't have to know how e-mail works -- all the technical gobbledegook -- to understand the spam problem: It's too cheap and can reach too many stupid people.

Well, the Internet world apparently lacks the courage to impose a cost, so we're just going to have to pick on the stupid people.

Intelligence tests for Internet access might be an appealing option.

Unfortunately that is a slippery slope. The IQ distance between those who buy herbal Viagra and those who bought stock in is a short one, relatively speaking. Where do you draw the line?

At the idiot source, I guess. Heck, Internet transactions are going to get taxed sooner or later. Let's start with this one. Call it an idiot tax. You answer spam, you pay a tax. Or fee. Or fine. Whatever you want to call it.

So those of you who answer spam ... print out this column and put it on your computer. Highlight this part: "If I answer spam, I must pay a $5 spam fee."

Of course, there is no taxing authority right now. A thought:

Send the fee to: Allen Wastler at CNN/Money, 440 Ninth Ave., New York, NY, 10001.

There. The spam problem is getting better already.  Top of page

Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNN/Money. He can be e-mailed, or spammed, at

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