The big limits of today’s email: privacy, barriers and robustness

Email is one of the most useful and more widely used applications of the Internet. So far, however, I have met very few people that seem aware of how suboptimal its usage is, or of the problems that may arise when many people will start to realize it. Please note that, while the rest of this page explains these statements only in the case of email, most of it applies to any other form of direct, person-to-person communication through the Internet (chat, IM, VoIP phone calls, social networking through Facebook or Ning…).

Webmail services like Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo Mail are really popular because they are, without doubt, very convenient: they are well integrated with other services like calendaring, work without installing or configuring any software on your computer and are accessible from any device that can connect to the Internet and run some browser.

This approach to email has several limits, however. The first is that what you are actually doing is to beg someone else, almost always a very big, private company, to see, filter and store all your personal communications. At the privacy and civil rights levels, this is exactly the same as putting all your personal diaries and paper letters in perfect order in one room, and then send a copy of the key both to some marketing agency and to whatever government or law enforcement agency may be interested in them some day. Oh, and what about (even if your email and contacts were never seen by 3rd parties) someone at work or at home passing by your monitor and wondering why you, and not them, is getting all those porn-type advertizements displayed”?

I must confess that I find very amusing that people who would never give up exclusive control of their paper documents do the very opposite when it comes to digital ones, or that I regularly receive chain email or blog posts denouncing some attack to privacy or personal freedom… just from people who use email accounts of this kind.

The second problem with delegating email management, namely spam filtering, is that communication can be blocked without any real reason. Other people, whose existence you don’t even know, decide who can talk with you, sometimes blocking people with which you wanted to talk. To know how and why this can happen, read about how I found myself unable to send email to a University I work with.

The third problem is robustness: no matter how well managed it is, every service has some glitch, sooner or later. If everybody uses the email services of the same, few big companies, every time one of them has a problem (it does happen!) millions of people are simultaneously isolated, not just one company or family.

Finally, if you are so naive to not make regular copies offline of all your messages, address book and similar stuff… what will you do the day your email provider shuts down (remember GM if you think it’s “too big to fail”), loses your data by mistake (this, too, does happen) or starts charging for its services (as Ning just did in another, but similar context)? As a system administrator said “(since it’s a free service, if they lose your data, they’ll have a minor public relations black eye and move on. You will be out a bunch of valuable data. You can’t fire anyone or take tangible measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again” (even if you did have enough money to face a very long and expensive court fight with a multinational).

The most common answer to observations like these is that in order to manage email, one should be a programmer and spend a lot of time to run a server. This is not true. I already run my own email server, but (even if I did have to study a few tutorials to configure it) I never had to write, debug or compile any software to do it. The real obstacles to personal email management are unaware users and lack of laws.