What If Spammers Had to Pay?

Before we launch into this week’s post, please join me in a trip down memory lane. The year is 1970, my first year in college, and I’m desperately looking for enough quarters to call home from my dormitory’s only payphone. I had a regular phone in my room, of course, but my roommate was studying and oh, by the way, I was calling my girlfriend. But the point here is that even if I had called from my room, someone would have had to pay for the call. The charge for a long-distance call would either be posted to my monthly phone bill, or the recipient of the call would have had to agree to pay the charges for a collect call (which was much more expensive at the time).

Note that in those days, Americans received almost no unsolicited phone calls placed from call banks in other parts of the United States. Why not? Because the caller would have had to either (a) pay for the long-distance phone call up front, or (b) convince the recipient to pay for a collect call from a stranger. I cannot recall ever receiving an unsolicited long-distance phone call prior to the days of cell phones.

Fast-forward to the year 2022. Nowadays, anyone—especially spammers—can call anyone anywhere in the country without paying a cent beyond the monthly “unlimited service” charge. Having already paid that fee, the caller faces no financial disincentive to placing as many calls as possible. Hence the profusion of robocalls offering bogus car warranty extensions.

Imagine, however, what might happen if we could return to the bad old days, at least in one clever respect. What if phone carriers were required to charge callers, say, one dollar per call, unless (a) the recipient had already included the caller on a list of approved contacts, or (b) the recipient agreed to credit the charge back to the caller after the call was made? Better yet, what if that payment was required to be split in some equitable way between the recipient and the carrier? So if a spammer wanted to call me, the spammer would have to pay both my carrier and me for the privilege.

One can imagine that, given such a system, the number of spam calls would shrink dramatically.

Modern technology could make such a process easy to implement. After all, there was a time when no one could walk up to a pay phone and expect to make a call without figuring out ahead of time how to pay for it. The only real problem we face in returning to such a system would be convincing phone carriers to require such payments again. Since it is my guess that they are currently being paid something by international spammers for the privilege of obtaining burner numbers that permit them to make unlimited anonymous robocalls, federal regulation (that nasty phrase!) might be the only answer.

Spirited Reasoners can envision many possible variations by which such a system might be implemented. For example, one variation could permit recipients to set their own rates for incoming calls (though this might become a headache for the phone carriers, who would be the ones responsible for keeping track of it all.) Another variation might allow recipients to vary rates depending on days of the week or times of day. Yet another variation might apply this same concept to email and other electronic messaging systems. The only ironclad requirement would be that the recipient should be allowed some payment for the privilege of someone making unsolicited use of the recipient’s phone or inbox.

The greatest drawback, and perhaps the main reason why such a system has not already been implemented, is the fact that numerous politicians and charitable organizations rely on unsolicited calls and texts for fundraising purposes. To this, I would argue that we operated quite well as a nation for over two centuries under the notion that postage was required before mail would be delivered and coins must be deposited before a call could be completed from a phone booth. Having reached the point where messages now spew from our phones and email inboxes like water from a fire hose, Spirited Reasoners are ready for Congress to adjust the volume back down again.