The real obstacles to personal email management: unaware users and (absent) laws

Email is a crucial, basic service that is almost impossible to not use these days, but the way email is normally used these days has serious limits. The most common answer I get when I try to explaine those limits is some variation of “you may be right, but… I’m not I software programmer and never will, so I have no choice but to use what’s around”. This is wrong.

I already run my own email server and I never had to compile or write any software in order to do it. I only had to study some configuration options and set them properly. While I did that configuration by manually editing text files, the same operations could be done in a window of any browser.

Taking full control of your own email is much easier than it may seem, and it doesn’t even require to replace the current Internet with some futuristic alternative: any independent Internet Service Providers (ISP) could easily integrate existing Free Software, configured with safe defaults, to offer turn-key VPES (Virtual Personal Email Server) than any non-programmer could operate independently, if they had a reason to do it. By VPES (*) I mean a single bundle of preconfigured Free Software that you could run in a very cheap dedicated computer at home or remotely, in a data center of your choice, including one run hosted by some non-profit organizations based in your own neighborhood.

This is no rocket science by any means. Virtual servers in managed data centers run by 3rd parties already exist (that’s how this and most of the websites you visit every day work). The only problem, as far as email is concerned, is that the current offers are not sized nor preconfigured to make an effective VPES.

If VPES were as common and cheap as standard virtual servers for websites already are, setting up your own to take full control of your own email would solve for good the email problems I already explained. So why don’t we have them already? In my opinion, the real barriers to get there are two non-technical issues. One already exists, the other will materialize as soon as the first is solved.

The reason why turn-key VPESs don’t exist yet is simply lack of demand from citizens who don’t realize how much freedom, privacy and control they could have on their email without ever becoming programmers! Configuration is different from programming, and it’s much easier! The truth is that if you can operate a Gmail interface or a WordPress blog you could start running your own VPES just after reading (once in your life) a five pages instruction manual.

The other, more interesting barrier is laws, or lack thereof. All laws or law proposals I know of only deal with scenarios where the individual email user and his/her email provider are two different, independent entities: a clueless customer vs a skilled professional offering the service for profit. The only issues seem to be if and how long an ISP should keep copies of the email of all its customers, and in which cases the police can get them from the ISP. But what would (will!) happen when the ISP and the customer become the same person? Compliance with any data retention policy would become self-certification completely useless in court. Besides, can you yourself be forced to keep copies of email that may put you in troubles? The only real solution to this problem would be to make illegal to be your own email provider period, even if it’s easy and cheap to do it and you do have, on paper, some rights to privacy. What do you think?

(*) I will post a list of VPES wanted features at Free Software Tips and Tricks on May 18th.