Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, July 18, 2002
# 11:05:00 PM:

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Spam as a commons problem

Over at the TidBITS discussion list, to which I belong, there's a good discussion about the scourge of spam in e-mail. It has come around to Garrett Hardin's classic 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons." He wrote about the planet's growing population and the nuclear arms race, but his ideas apply just as well to the Internet, and to spam. Here's one excerpt:

Recall the game of tick-tack-toe. Consider the problem, "How can I win the game of tick-tack-toe?" It is well known that I cannot, if I assume (in keeping with the conventions of game theory) that my opponent understands the game perfectly. Put another way, there is no "technical solution" to the problem. I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word "win." I can hit my opponent over the head; or I can drug him; or I can falsify the records. Every way in which I "win" involves, in some sense, an abandonment of the game, as we intuitively understand it. (I can also, of course, openly abandon the game -- refuse to play it. This is what most adults do.)

Edward Reid, one of the TidBITS Talk participants, notes that:

...the global email system is currently set up as a commons. [Hardin] argues convincingly that a commons can never be stable indefinitely; the instabilities are intrinsic. The email commons must be restructured into some form other than a commons to continue to be useful. We need to keep this in mind while we pursue our defense of what little commons we have left today. Because email is a commons, spam falls in the category of problems which have no technical solution.

So there is no technical solution while e-mail remains a commons, but being a commons is one big reason why it's been so successful. And then Chris Page, who heads the Mac software group at handheld maker Palm, Inc., had a neat idea:

A digitally signed promise to pay a fixed amount of money is sent with each [e-mail] message. [...] let's say it's a dollar. At the recipient's discretion that dollar can be collected or returned to the sender. If a given message is unwanted by the recipient, they claim the dollar.

Read his full message for details. Sure, it's open to some abuse, and it does change the way Internet e-mail operates fundamentally, so that it's not really a commons anymore (which, I guess, is why it might work). But it's a cool idea all right.


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