New Email Service Tackles Spam With Bitcoin Micropayments

Joon Ian Wong
Feb 19, 2015 at 09:25 UTC
Updated Feb 19, 2015 at 17:06 UTC
news

A recently launched service called Composed aims to boost the fight against spam by charging bitcoin micropayments for emails.

Composed users are assigned an email address with a getcomposed.com domain name and can decide how much they wish to charge senders for an email. Anyone wanting their message to arrive at that address will have to respond to an automated reply and pay for the privilege by sending bitcoin or fiat currency via PayPal.

Ryan Gerard, who created the service, said:

“When it costs spammers real money to send email, they will send less of it. Using bitcoin for micropayments in that system is the perfect solution.”

Putting a good idea into practice

The developer, who goes by the Twitter handle ‘@dreadpirateryan‘, said he had come across proposals for using bitcoin micropayments to make spam more expensive to send. Composed is his attempt to turn that idea into a working “utility” that also compensates receivers for having to spend time reading email from strangers.

The idea is for Composed users to publish their paywalled email address in places where the general public might see it. Gerard suggests personal websites, blogs and social media profiles as places where users might swap out their personal email address for a Composed one.

“Composed is a utility to compensate you for your time when external parties you don’t know well want to cold-email you,” he said.

Where does Composed leave people who do know its users well – someone’s spouse or children, say?

The email paywall has no effect on people who already know a user’s actual email address, Gerard said. They would simply continue sending email to that address as usual, as Composed itself does after extracting a fee from strangers. A user can log in to Composed to check or withdraw their balance.

Gerard said the response to his service has been surprisingly positive so far, having signed up 200 users in its first two weeks after launching on 29th January.

The email a sender receives after sending a message to a Composed address.The message a sender receives after emailing a Composed address.

Email spam is a global issue

Email spam remains a huge global problem. A 2012 paper by research scientists at Yahoo! Research estimated that spam costs businesses and consumers in America $20bn a year to deal with. The same paper cites statistics that show spam accounted for 88% of the 100 billion emails sent globally in 2010.

The notion of dealing with spam by making spammers incur additional costs is the subject of a Microsoft Research project called Penny Black. The project is so named because the Penny Black stamp, introduced by the British postal system in the 1830s, shifted the cost of postage from the receiver to the sender.

Microsoft’s research took a different tack to Composed’s model of placing a financial burden on the sender, however. It looked instead at using processing power or computer memory cycles as ‘currencies’ for payment by the sender.

The project, conducted in 2003, concluded that imposing a computational cost in the form of processing power is one of the most effective methods to combat spammers.

According to an overview of the project:

“Spammers would have to invest heavily in hardware in order to send high volumes of spam.”

Setting out to solve the global spam epidemic isn’t exactly what Gerard set out to do with Composed, though.

The developer, who has a day job in engineering with payments firm Square, said he built his project to be a small-scale endeavour. He has only paid out a few dollars to users so far, but he hopes the combination of digital currency and micropayments will scale along with his project.

Gerard said:

“Spam would be the most obvious problem that micropayments help solve, but there are a variety of small financial transactions that could easily take place over email. Imagine signing up for a paid weekly newsletter by just sending an email, or paying your cellphone bill by replying to an email.”

Email image via Shutterstock