A plan by Yahoo to have its e-mail users voluntarily pay a penny for each e-mail they send to help cut down on spam may test the limits of how much -- if anything -- people are willing to pay for anything on the Internet that is already free.

Even the lowly penny may be too much too much for people to pay in an age when newspapers are trying to stop giving away their product online, and a book titled "Free" is a New York Times bestseller that promotes the free model as a smart business strategy.

People may be slowly agreeing to pay for more things online that used to be free, and micropayments are becoming a hot topic, but free speech associated with e-mail may just push it a little too far.

Yahoo's CentMail has users who voluntarily sign up for the program put a virtual one-cent stamp on outgoing e-mails. The proceeds go to a charity of the user's choice.

Whoever gets the e-mail can automatically verify the donation and confirm the sender isn't a spammer. The penny stamps would be prohibitive for spammers who send millions of e-mails daily. Spam filters could be adjusted to let the stamped mail go through.

Of course, users wouldn't be emptying out their piggy banks and searching for pennies every time they sent an e-mail. Stamps would be bought in bundles, say 500 stamps for $5, which would go to charity.

The charitable angle may be enough to get some people to convert to CentMail, which is in private beta, according to a Wired story.

Another way to look at it is that accepting a stamped e-mail could mean the receiver is also supporting the sender's choice of charity without wanting to, according to a NewScientist story. One person's favored charity could be another's headache.

"I might feel that by accepting his messages, I'm implicitly supporting his charity choices -- choices that I might be vehemently against," Barry Leiba of IBM told NewScientist.

Altruism is best when it comes from the heart. Tacking it onto an e-mail seems a little heartless.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net

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