I wonder if it’s time for email providers like gMail and Hotmail to take a lesson from the banking industry. Some banks now offer consumers the option to generate temporary credit card numbers to use for online shopping. These temporary numbers generally have a spending limit associated with them, and a shorter expiration period than a typical credit card number.
How would this work for email? The main difficulty would be in the creation and input of the temporary addresses into online forms. The nature of the temporary addresses would likely make them hard to remember. This is where Microsoft could play on a bit of Hotmail/MSN Toolbar synergy. Basically, you create a plugin to the form-fill wizard that will detect when the user has entered their primary email address into an online form, and then you could gently suggest that they use a temporary address instead. You can include options for how long the address should be valid for (3 months, 1 year, indefinite), and possibly let the user select a default automatic replace option.
On the Mail UI side, you could provide a way for consumers to find out what site gave out their address to spammers. I’m thinking that the user would just hover their mouse over the “to” address and it would display some basic info such as “This email was sent to a transient email address. This address was generated on 03/03/2005 for the site http://blobservations.net“. You could also let users expire indefinite addresses, or other addresses that have been overrun with spam.
The benefits? This lowers the value of all of those “verified email address” lists that are bartered on the gray market. Even more importantly, it provides a chain of culpability when your email address is shared without your permission.
The difficulties? User experience. Getting this right so that everyday email users understand it will be tough, but doable. The infrastructure to generate addresses and route/deny email is going to be complex (but if it lowers the overall spam load, you should free up some of the required resources). Security? Essential. Branding? What do you call this functionality so that consumers “get it”? Cross Platform? Please, leave the API open so that everyone can play.
Other random ideas: Let users create vanity (self-selected) temporary addresses. Maybe provide 3 free with any mail account, and let users purchase extra vanity “slots”. This way consumers would have a way of throwing away overrun email addresses without losing all of their mail. Whenever a user throws away an old address, let them create a new one for free.
Many computer savvy users have been generating and abandoning temporary addresses for years. Make this easy, and give the power to everyday email users, and the value of spam goes down. This isn’t the end-all-spam solution, but it makes it harder to abuse the email system, and hands some control back to the consumer.