What does phone telemarketing, email spam, junk postal mail, and credit card fraud all have in common?
Phone calls, email, snail mail, and credit card payments are all push systems. Any person who has your phone number - or can guess it through wardialing - can make your phone ring. (And many people treat their ringing phone as something they have an obligation to pick up.) Any person who has your email address (or can guess through the email equivalent of wardialing) can put something in your inbox. any person who has your mailing address (or can pull it off of a map) can put something in your mailbox. And any person who has your credit card or debit card number, and a merchant account, can put a charge on it at will.
As a result, you don’t control your phone ringing, your email inbox, your mailbox contents, or your credit card charges. And this produces the related problems of telemarking, spam, junk mail, and fraudulent charges.
Compare this to two pull systems which serve similar purposes: RSS and Paypal.
RSS is a way to get messages into your inbox, and yet there is no such thing as RSS spam. That’s because you control your subscription to the RSS feed, not the feed’s owner. You can choose to change how, when, or if you consume the feed at any time.
Paypal is a way to make payments, exactly like a credit card. But knowing someone’s Paypal account (email address) doesn’t give you any ability to take funds from their account. All you can do is send them a request for funds, which they can choose to authorize. More commonly, Paypal payments are initiated directly by the account holder. A credit card is like walking around with an open wallet that anyone you’ve ever engaged in a transaction with can take cash from whenever they wish. Paypal is a wallet that you control, and can choose to remove cash from and provide to vendors whenever they give you goods or services.
Could a pull system similar RSS be adapted to serve the same purpose as email or a phone call? I think so. For example: your email address could be used as a subscriber ID. Normally when you meet someone you wish to stay in contact with later, you give them a card with your email address. But how about you instead electronically subscribe to their outgoing message feed, providing your public key for them to encrypt messages intended for you only. Now when they wish to send you a message, they post an encrypted message to their outgoing feed. Since you are subscribed to the feed, you will pick up the message and decrypt it. If at some point you decide that you don’t wish to receive their messages, you can unsubscribe, just like RSS.
Phone calls and IM could work the same way, through VoIP. If you subscribe to someone’s feed - perhaps this would be stated as adding them to your buddy list - then you are authorizing them to cause your phone to ring. If you find that they are abusing this access to you, you can unsubscribe.
A system like this would be fertile ground for innovating more granular access systems. For example, you might subscribe to certain people (girlfriends/boyfriends/husbands/wives, close friends, family members, coworkers) at a high access level - you wish to be alerted immediately any time one of them wishes to contact you. But you might subscribe to acquaintances - say, someone you met at a conference or on the bus - at a low access level. Perhaps once every few days you check low-level feeds, and find out that Bob, who you met at a conference last month, has a business proposal for you.
This is pure speculation, but my sense is that spam will be a never-ending war as long as addresses in these various systems are arbitrarily reachable. Perhaps the way to take control over who can get our attention is to invert the flow.