Bitcoin Extensions to the SMTP protocol

Today’s post is a theoretical method of a way to reduce spam in email.

An extension to the SMTP mail protocol that will allow transfer of a very small amount of Bitcoin in the message transmission process which would alleviate spam.

Part 1: The Problem.

To break this process down:

1)   We have email, which is transmitted “under-the-hood” by the SMTP protocol which is a transmission protocol, language if you like, communication standard between computers on the internet.

2)   We have spam, which is unsolicited email. We’re all familiar with this, various mail use drugs or millionaires from Nigeria who wish to send us millions of dollars, there’s various permutations, and it’s very annoying. You didn’t ask for it and there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop it.

3)   Then we have Bitcoin which is a new crypto-currency which came out in 2009 and it’s a digital means of transmission of monetary funds. Again, it’s a fiat currency. Like all currencies really, there is no intrinsic value to the data, or the paper bills that you have. But there is a value assigned to it currently in the market, which does fluctuate. But nevertheless, my personal view is that it will increase and stabilise over time.

Just using the term Bitcoin to cover all variations on this, there’s Bitcoin, Namecoin and various other “coins” why are all crypto-currencies but Bitcoin was the first one and I’ll use that as the example currency but it could apply to anyone of these currencies, anyone that gains traction anywhere and has mechanisms for transmission.

So how are we going to combine SMTP and email and the Bitcoin currency to massively reduce spam? I can’t say it’s ever going to completely stamp it out. But we should be looking at a large reduction in spam.

The way it currently works, email using the underlying STMP protocol: Say I want to send a message to somebody else. I compose my message in my email composing program which is probably Outlook or Gmail, if it’s online. And I press send. That message then is accepted by the machine that I’m working on and needs to be sent. So it’ll wind up in a queue somewhere. This queue has the destination domain of for example.

What the machine, the transmitting server will do, is it will do a name lookup. A DNS, Distributed Name System lookup, DNS lookup for, it’ll read that record and see that there is a mail server allocated to that, or in Yahoo’s case probably several mail servers.

It finds the mail server, it then does another DNS lookup which gives it the numeric address of the mail server. It’ll then attempt to open a connection to this machine on a standard SMTP port of 25. So hopefully Yahoo’s servers are listening and an incoming request will be received from my server, or whatever server is sending the mail for me.

And then the protocol states a discussion will go on then. Anyway, this protocol, this discussion between the two computers has a vocabulary. It’ll start off with a ‘hello’ or an equivalent type of statement where the machines introduce each other. The other one will respond ‘hello’ back and then there’s some addressing information. ‘Here’s the message for:’ and the user name. ‘Where is it coming from?’ It’s as simple as that. The message basically is just transmitted from one machine direct to another one.

Part 2: The Solution.

Now, what I am proposing is to add another word or two into the vocabulary of this transmission and include a Bitcoin address for sending Bitcoin cash through this transmission. Now it needs to be an option though, because obviously at this point in time, today, there is no implementation of this. So the first server that implements the additional Bitcoin transmission is going to be talking to itself.

So, it needs to be an extension to the SMTP protocol rather than a complete revision but I don’t know if eSMTP protocol has a similar, extended protocol with a different ‘hello’ at the beginning. Maybe, if later on a different word is received most servers will just respond ‘not understood’ but if they have the Bitcoin transmitting ability on the top then they will understand the next verb.

It will be relatively easy to implement an extra Bitcoin verb or “Bitcoin transmission wanted”-expression.

The mail servers will have to “loaded” with Bitcoin. This has to be loaded onto the system in a Bitcoin wallet inside my computer and then as it sends the message to Yahoo it will send a very small amount of Bitcoin.

Now the beauty of Bitcoin is that it can be divided into extremely small divisions, much smaller than a penny or a US cent. You can easily send a thousandth of a cent or a hundredth of a cent which makes this particularly attractive. The fact that there’s no transmission cost, there’s no bank involved, there’s no PayPal, there’s nobody creaming a percentage off every transmission. I can send a very small amount and all of it will be received.

So I’d imagine a typical scenario of a husband and wife or some friends who are probably evenly communicating with each other at a similar rate. The husband sending roughly as many messages as they are receiving.

Not only are the messages extremely cheap, we’re looking at over the course of a year maybe 10 US cents. Or even 50 cents for heavy email going on between two people, or just one person sending I would imagine. Depending on the price.

But the key is that the typical person will send maybe 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 or 10 messages a day. You’re looking over the course of a year, let’s say he sends 10 messages which is probably a heavy user I’d imagine. Now this person, if he sends 10 a day, and there’s 356 days in a year. He’s sending three and a half thousand messages a year. It’d be costing him even 1 cent which I think is way, way over the top. What are we looking at there? Is it $30 or is it $3? Anyway, we’re talking about extremely low figures here.

The thing is spammers, people who are trying to sell Viagra or con people have to send millions of messages in order to get a positive response in their eyes. There’s not that many gullible people and there’s not that many people interested in viagra. And most people hate spam so they wouldn’t respond to it anyway. So the trick is that these people, not only is it one way. Whereas between husband and wife money would be going forwards and backwards all the time so the net transmission would be extremely low.

These people, the spammers are sending out enormous amounts of messages and are not getting anything back so it’s going to start to cost them and I suspect that it would probably diminish their activities.

Now obviously, maybe if somebody is targeted. Let’s say somebody responds to some spam or buys some Viagra. This signal to the Scammers that “they’re gullible”. Other scammers may then target this person. I believe this is happening already. The amount of messages you would have to send to his person are a lot lower. So we may see a refining of the scammers techniques but then we’re really moving away from the generic spam email to the custom targeted scamming which exists anyway in the world. So I’m not concerned about the evolution of this. I just don’t want any spam.

Bitcoin was developed in 2009. In 2009 I remember thinking as the governments were turning on the printing presses and targeting inflation as the saviour of the world. I remember thinking about various alternatives to standard currencies which were not controlled by the any governments or central banks. There is obviously gold, - this has been used throughout history as a currency – but has problems with the supply and storage of it and compared to Bitcoin - its transmission. I remember considering a unit of energy maybe a “Wattmeter”. A wattmeter calculation which would be redeemable by going to any sort of power source e.g. Power company or Solar grid.

But anyway, I was very pleased a year or two later to discover that a chap named Satoshi, this is supposedly a pseudonym for him. But he’s come up with the idea of a digital currency which does satisfy many of the requirements for a currency. Which is uniqueness of notes, a limited supply. There’s only 21 million Bitcoins will ever be produced. Some form of mining or increase in the money supply over time. There are downsides to it of course. As with other currencies you can always come up with another version of it. It’s simple software so instead of printing dollar bills I can have my pound notes or a competing currency. So you’re looking at other factors such as stability, transmission, security and other features of the protocol, of the currency protocol.

Anyway it’s interesting times. We had the MtGox failure a month or two ago which obviously has affected the Bitcoin pricing. But I suspect over time once people realise the true flexibility of crypto-currencies or digital currencies they will be swayed. Obviously the exchange rate to traditional currencies need to stabilise. The reason it’s jumping up and down so much, there’s numerous reasons, but one of the main reasons is there’s a relatively small amount of in supply. It is held in the hands of some small groups with large amount of it which means it will go up and down. Obviously, because it hits the headlines every time there’s a lot of volatility.

But nevertheless, this email transmission property that it can be used for. It will probably help in its acceptance. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a thousandth of a cent or a hundredth of a cent. The fact is that there is some money being transferred. If you are an even equilibrium user, you’re sending as much as you are receiving then you shouldn’t have to load the Bitcoin very often, and of course they are tiny amounts that you have to put in.

So, I wanted to consider a company that sends email and how it would impact that and just look at the numbers too. Of course there will be a cost to commercial organisations in the transmission. Actually, it’s only transmission that’s received. If you send a message to… This needs considering… There needs to be some adherence to a standard so the mail server won’t just sit there and accept messages for people who no longer have accounts there because they have a business and people leave and people are still getting messages. You could essentially make a very small amount of money by accepting their messages for delivery. Most of the time, companies switch off the email accounts and start to balance and say, Ann Jones is no longer here so the Bitcoin wouldn’t be sent to them.

But what I wanted to talk about was large companies who typically have large mailing lists. Now I think for the small cost involved, I haven’t got my calculator in front of me. But if they were sending, what would a small to medium enterprise, how many customers? If it was dealing directly with the public, business to consumer. Business to business would be a lot less. Business to business maybe a thousand. Business to consumer, a hundred thousand people and they might want to email them once a month. So that’s a 120 000 messages. Yes, I suspect the costs would still be low, even if it was 1 cent, that’s $1200 a year. But the messages are not going to wind up in the spam bin, or they shouldn’t.

Now of course, the fact that you’re sending some money doesn’t guarantee that the message is not spam. So I’m going to talk about that in a second.

Ok, so a quick discussion here about how this is not going to be the cure all, this is not the elixir, the life giving juice the life giving source. An elixir for removing spam but I think it will, unless it’s worked around it, initially it would have quite a large effect. So at the moment, a lot of spam filters use what’s called Bayesian, after the mathematician Bays. Bayesian probabilities for classifying email into spam. Having spam like structures, word structures, sentences, words, lack of other words which allow software to categorise it.

As we know very often spam does still arrive in my inbox in my Gmail account, Outlook account, my Hotmail outlook account which is being performed by major corporations who are very good at what they do. So I still wind up with a spam message in my inbox and real messages going to my spam tray. So it doesn’t work completely, there’s obviously room for improvement.

Now I would imagine that the fact that the Bitcoin has been transferred wouldn’t completely mark it as spam. If the message said something like ‘want to buy viagra?’ and that was it, and it also sent some Bitcoin. The Bayesian filters could probably still work that one out, I’d hope so anyway. So I’m not claiming that this is going to cure everything. But certainly, these things are only answered in practice.

How developers can make money from this:

The final part is how can developers, and people in the IT industry make money out of this? As I say it needs to be in addition to the SMTP protocol, an extra verb or two and then the transmission to the Bitcoin address and some verification that this has occurred and then eventual delivery of the message.

So what we’re really looking at here is an extension to standard software, so Sendmail or Microsoft SMTP or all the various mail servers that exist in the world. Either the vendors/developers or third parties could produce software that will add these extra verbs to the SMTP protocol and be sold as extensions.


I've looked at the problem of spam, and considered a way that Bitcoin could be included in the transmission process to lower the likelyhood that a spammer will want to send messages.


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