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What To Do With Snake Oil Salesmen (and Other Spammers)

Another day, another wave of spam in my inbox. It’s very easy to pick out, for me, but my webmail provider doesn’t seem to have a system sophisticated enough to catch only the bad stuff; as soon as it starts blocking spam, it also starts blocking everything else along with it.

My first instinct, like that of many people, is to think up and appeal for highly punitive responses to spam. After all, spammers — at least, the ones who’re pushing viagra and seething malware through unsolicited email, and through comments and trackbacks on blogs — are committing a much bigger crime than most of us consider. Estimates about spam traffic often wave effusively at numbers ranging from 40% to 70% of total Internet traffic. I’d certainly believe a rate of around 50-60%, honestly. This is a lot of energy, wasted; a lot of time, a lot of computers messed up by the viruses these things spread; a lot of revenue lost to businesses who don’t engage in this kind of junk mailing.

But my first instinct is not, in the bigger picture, sensible. It’s not sensible because the Internet is not yet settled.

So let’s think of the Net as a rough-and-tumble Old West town. There’s only one Sherriff, and he’s got only one relcutant deputy, and he don’t want no trouble. Which means you can break any number of minor laws that nobody cares about, and he won’t do nothin’ to ya. Most of the citizens are not just law-abiding, though; they’re humane. They don’t go around robbing one another because, well, just because someone left his front door wide open doesn’t give you the right to rob him. They know the Golden Rule and they follow it, mostly.

And then, one fine dusty afternoon, a stranger rides into town. He’s not a thief, but if he were, the townsfolk would be quite okay with that. They know that the Sherriff has a penchant for basically shooting dead anyone who tries to steal from them. This guy, he’s an odd duck, but not in the menacing way that would scare the fine townsfolk. He’s got this cart out behind his horse, and it’s full of dictionaries and old novels and risqué novels and dodgy-looking tonics — oil of smoke and snake oil, for example — and Sears catalogs with extra coupons that nobody in town’s ever seen the likes of before, and all sorts of things, in that cart. His name is Jim Spammer.

Now, he starts making the rounds. Every house, it’s the same schtick, except in every house it’s a little different. Now, it’s all about what the man has to offer, not what the buyer wants or needs. He’ll give a grandma an erotic novel about a cowboy and a whore; he’ll try sell bullets to a man without a gun. People who’ve never been sick a day of their lives have Oil of Smoke wiggled before their eyes, and are informed that this is what they need to be healthy and happy and virile again. Women are urged to buy things to ward off their impotence. He piled up dictionaries on the table of a blind man, and pushes the sell.

And it’s not like it’s just the sales pitch that’s a pain. The cart, it’s big: it takes up the whole street, and when he’s making the rounds, nobody can ride past; he slows traffic, sometimes to a halt, and sometimes when he’s let into someone’s house, after he leaves, the door doesn’t work right anymore, or the whole house smells funny, and a window breaks later on, all of a sudden, for no apparent reason.

But you know, when it’s just the one guy, well, people can handle it. They don’t start calling the Sherriff to arrest him every time he shows up. They just look out the side window and get a glimpse, see the cheap suit and the pomaded hair, and hush up and don’t answer the door.

That works for a while. And then, the day arrives. It arrives differently in each house, and accompanied by rumors and muttering and some speculation, but it arrives at every house in the end. Another man is in town, peddling just the same as Mr. Pomade. Now there are two men to watch out for. Then three, then four, then five, ten, twenty. Worse, these guys have developed a new trick; they dress up the same as the local sherriff, or minister, or butcher shop owner, or whoever, and when they go on their rounds, they try to hide their faces from view of the window. People think they have a legitimate caller and open the door and what do you know? — another goldarn sales pitch.

Citizens living in this little Old West town have some choices about what they can do, at this point. Firstly, they can just sit through the pitches — though more and more they find they have more of these peddlers knocking on their doors, until it’s almost constant. Nobody admits to buying anything, though, so they wonder how these bastards can be making a living. Yet they keep at it, and keep at it; the sound of a knocking door starts fights. It breaks the peace of the small town. So they call a town meeting down at the church, the biggest open space, and talk it over.

Not one of the peddlers shows up, of course, but the townsfolk, they talk about what to do.

“Lock ’em all up, and throw away the key, I say,” hollers old Jebediah, waving a fist and stomping a booted foot onto the wooden floor for effect. People nod; it’s an anger they share, but the Sherriff shakes his head.

“Naw, folks, I reckon that ain’t gonna work. Firstly, where in tarnation can I lock ’em all up? And secondly, don’tcha reckon more fellahs just like ’em wouldn’t just move right on in and take their places? And who gets to feed these fellahs, anyway? I’m not gonna do it.”

The townsfolk all consider this for a few minutes, mumbling about the Sherriff but in their hearts they know that the lock-em-all up approach wouldn’t for these reasons. “And we cain’t run ’em outta town, neither; they’ll just come back, dressed different, and even if they don’t, they’ll just start picking on some other little town, till they get run outta there too, and then they’ll come back here.”

A local shop-owner pipes in: “Why don’t we just shoot ’em, then?”

People are angry enough to pause and think it over, but, well, these are the same people who don’t feel the urge to rob their neighbours even though their neighbours’ front doors are almost never locked. They know it’s overkill, literally. “And anyway, how could anyone find them?” the Sherriff asks. “Nobody knows where they live, or how many of ’em they are. And if we get harder on them than we are now, who knows but they might start really being nasty.”

“And it just ain’t Christian-like”, the minister adds solemnly.

Everyone nods their heads disappointedly.

Then a local businessman says, “Well, these boys are blockin’ up the roads. I figger we could maybe rig up somethin’ that makes their carts stick? Maybe some kind of riser in the middle of the road, or somethin’. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” says a farmer from beside the road, “But then how do I get my wheat to elevator? I mean, I gotta transport m’crops, you know.”

“Yeah, but we could make one road just for big transport, you know…”

This gives pause. Nobody’s built a new road in a while. It takes money. And time. But it could work, maybe.

“What else could we do?” the Sherriff asks.

“We could tax ’em,” says Jethro, who works in the post office. “We could charge ’em a tax on every dollar they make, and that’d rob some of the profit. We wouldn’t get rid of ’em, I don’t think, but we could at least get something for putting up with them.”

“I reckon, though, Jethro,” the shop owner says carefully, “That this would mean whoever bought something would have to, you know, ask for a record. We’d have to track the tax. If it were too small, the tax, then it’d be more trouble than it was worth, making sure they actually paid it.” He smiles. “And besides, people would have to start admitting that they buy certain kinds of things from these fellers.” An embarrassing number of townsfolk blush.

“My grandma answers the door every time there’s a knock, these days,” a little dirty-faced boy adds. “She just don’t get it; she figgers these salesmen are chamrin’ young gentlemen. She even buys junk off ’em, junk she don’t even need.”

“And as long as there are people like that in this town,” the Sherriff adds, “We’ll have men like these peddlers around.”

“Well, I got me an idea,” says the town blacksmith. “Listen here, I made me a peephole in the middle of my door. Big enough for me to see out, but small enough that they can’t pitch through it, so’s it’s kind of like my security. I wish we din’t have to lock up our doors, and peep at whoever’s knockin’, but that’s the way it’s turned these days. Anyway, I can sell you locks, and install peep-holes in your doors, for a fee. It’ll save y’all a lotta headache.”

Amid the nodding heads and the people asking how much a lock costs, the shopkeeper speaks up: “Well, that’s fine as far as your front doors go, but it won’t unblock the roads. And these here fellers found a trick that worked when y’all were lookin’ out your windows at them, didn’t they? Besides, it sounds a little like every man for himself; what’s poor folks gonna do? Can’t afford a lock and a peephole, you gotta just live with the salesmen? I figger they’ll find another one for the peepholes, reaaaaal quick. And I think the road is gonna be the solution.”

“Wait a minute!” shouts the local banker. “I got it! What we need is a system where people prove their intent by putting their money where their mouth is. I don’t know exactly what we can do to set it up, but imagine this: imagine a town where knocking on any door at all, any door whatsoever, if you hadn’t planned for it and made prior arrangements for a social, cost you money… let’s say, five cents.” The townsfolk gasp. Five cents is, to many of them, a good bit of money for something as mundane as the right to knock on a door. “Maybe we could charge five cents more if you’re bringing a package through the door with you.” More gasps. “Now, the money would go straight to the person whose door you’re knocking on. Maybe you’ve got a peephole, maybe not. Doesn’t matter; as soon as there’s a knock on the door, that money is yours, and you can choose what to do with it. If you answer and it’s your long lost brother, you of course give him back the five cents. If it’s a neighbour borrowing an egg, or dropping off something nice, then fine, you give her back her five cents. But these peddlers, you see, we take a hard line with them. The five cents is forfeit at the discretion of the recipient of the call. Meaning, if it’s some peddler, you can keep the five or ten cents. And of course, if you want, you can let them put in the five cents, look through the peephole, and then tell them to get lost, without even opening the door.”

People are nodding. “Sounds like a good idea, but tell me this,” says the blacksmith. “Won’t it stop people from knockin’ on doors by surprise? Havin’ to pay five cents, ain’t that gonna slow down social calls an’ such?”

The banker shakes his head: “No, no. Listen to me. You wouldn’t actually be paying five cents to visit. The five cents just buys you the right to knock. If we all agree that nobody will answer a door that’s knocked on without the five cents — at least, without a special code knock, or without a previous appointment, or something — then everyone will just make sure to have five cents on hand. Five cents isn’t really that much to give up, especially if your intentions are good; in that case, you’ll get your five cents back every time; or, at least, if someone keeps your five cents, you can keep his five cents next time he comes knocking on your door. And of course you can remember never to knock on his door again.”

“And what do you get out of it?” asks the shop owner wearily.

“Well, listen. I could set this thing up so that I held the deposit for everyone’s knocks in escrow; I could get some interest from everyone’s floating desposits, since I guess it’s more likely these change accounts would be handled by a kind of credit system, which would go debit in the end. But it’d be easier if everyone just used, you know, cash; it’s be easier if everyone just decided from the get-go to recognize only one standard of payment, make the deposit and its refund immediate. At the very least, it’d slow these peddlers down — they’d have to keep going home to pick up more nickels — and it’d cost them a lot of coin, I figure, as long as people understood that they’re well within their rights to keep that deposit in the case of unwanted solicitation.”

The townspeople look at him carefully. There has to be an angle, they figure, but in fact, there isn’t. He really has thought it through, and some time ago decided it would be better to get some damned peace and quiet at home than to make more money off the townsfolk.

“I dunno,” says the shopkeeper, “but it seems to me that the roads…”

“… need to stay as they are!” interrupts the farmer.

“I got a few dozen peepholes made up all ready to go, folks,” starts the blacksmith, and the banker turns to leave.

“Whatever you want, people,” he mutters to nobody in particular. “You’re gonna come back to my idea, just you wait and see.” And then he leaves the church, vowing to buy a lock for his front gate. Better nobody can even get to the door to knock at all; if the town won’t work together, then the best a man can do is look out for himself better than everyone else. But they’d come begging for that idea, he was sure of it, as he walked down the streets of the town, seeing the peddlers seated on porches and verandas, waiting for someone, anyone, to come home.

Let that be a lesson to us all. I think about it. You can afford a nickel — or fifty cents, even — as a temporary nonspam assurance deposit on every email you send. It’s only a deposit, for 99% of the cases in which you’re sending an email in good faith. You’d get the money back most of the time, in other words. You could have a floater account and deposit into it once, and keep it going. You, at least, could afford this much better than a spammer. You’d be making a very small temporary sacrifice; spammers would be making a continual permanent one. Imagine being able to say, “If only I had a nickel for every piece of spam email I ever got!” In addition, this would encourage people to be more vigilant about their email — about sending it, in the borderline cases, and about receiving it in the case of people who these days are too computer-illiterate, lazy, or thick-headed to tell the difference between real email and junk email.

Maybe a deposit would only be required to begin an exchange; or maybe we could construct lists of deposit-exempt senders. The possibilities are endless, I suppose, but then again so are the possible bugs. But it seems to me some system other than mere filtration will be necessary if spam keeps going as it is, and if electronic life keeps growing in importance as it now is.

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