Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Should We Charge for Email?

Written by johnleemk on 1:46:10 am Sep 23, 2007.

One proposal which once was quite common, but has not been really strongly considered as of late is the idea that we should pay for email we send.

The common sense rationale for this is obvious. Those who send reasonable amounts of email will pay little to nothing; those who send a lot (i.e. spammers) will pay heavily.

In economic terms, at the moment, there are several external costs imposed by sending an email — the cost of operating the networks over which the information travels, the cost to the recipients of having to setup anti-spam measures, and so forth.

Imposing a minimal charge (possibly as little as a few thousandths of a cent) which reflects these costs would internalise them, and force us to take into account the full cost on society imposed by sending out an email.

An interesting question, though, is why nobody has done this just yet. The answer is obvious: the benefits which would accrue from implementing this solution would not accrue to those who do the heavy lifting. People would prefer a free service to one which costs 0.1 cents a month, even if everyone benefits from that extra 1.2 cents a year you are billed.

This obviously calls for government intervention — as a general rule, governments are best-placed to tackle economic problems such as this one, where the market is actively counterproductive.

However, the next apparent question is whether this is worth all the trouble. For all we know, the costs of tracking how much email each account sends may exceed the profits taken.

Nevertheless, in light of the huge volumes of email sent all the time, a government-mandated tax on email sending would probably justify the costs involved with operating the system.

The only problem is political unpopularity. It is difficult to explain to people why this measure will benefit society when the responsible and irresponsible alike are taxed. It may be possible to rebate this to the people by lowering, say, the income tax at the same time, but still, clearly no politician is willing to stick their neck out for the good of society.

Like many proposals with some measure of merit, a tax on email is one worth considering but which will never be considered by the people with the power to make it happen — the people whose ignorance costs us all.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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