Can e-mail be saved?

E-mail is the victim of its own backward economics. Anyone can send a message to anyone else postage due; the sender pays almost nothing, while the recipient pays in time and money to download and read the message. With that kind of incentive, it's surprising that only 60 to 80 percent of e-mail traffic is unsolicited ads.

Any doubts that spam is the biggest problem on the Net were erased in February, when Bill Gates turned it into a keynote topic at RSA Conference 2004. As usual, rather than propose a new idea, Microsoft's chief software architect gave legs to existing schemes. Gates' first proposal, caller ID for e-mail, would use DNS to filter messages from forged addresses. A more high-concept Microsoft research project called Penny Black would require e-mail users to attach e-stamps to messages before sending them to strangers -- the stamps would be cryptographic tokens bought not with cash, but with 10 seconds of CPU time. Clever, but hackers are already cooking up ways to cheat the system.

Whenever Gates shows up, you know the tipping point has arrived. Instead of tinkering with ever more complex antispam filters and gateways, it's time to rethink the way e-mail works in the enterprise. With that in mind, we rounded up some successful software entrepreneurs -- plus one unrepentant spammer -- and asked them how they would change the system to remove mass-marketers' incentives to flood your workplace with ads.

Our experts gave us different answers. But all of them agreed that positive identification, rather than rejiggered economics, is the key to clearing the clutter from the e-mail channel in the enterprise. To be clear: privacy and anonymity are values worth preserving on the Internet. In the workplace, though, the rules are different. As one of our panellists put it, the rules are different. No one should be prevented from posting personal opinions anonymously, but you'd have to be crazy to do business with someone whose identity can't be verified.

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