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dr. Albert Benschop
University of Amsterdam
Translation: Connie Menting
Peculiarities of e-mail
How e-mail works
E-mail in companies and organizations
Internet pollution: spam
European and Dutch legislation
Peer-to-peer: networks of unknown friends
Virtual Communities: Networks of the future
|Peculiarities of e-mail|
Internet offers all kinds of new opportunities for communication. Via e-mail personal messages can be exchanged between two or more individuals in a fast and efficient way. We do it increasingly and nearly all of us: e-mailing. E-mail is one of the most distributed ways of communication in the present society. It has changed a part of our lives. People can hardly imagine life without email. It is an indispensable tool for workplace communications; it is glue among friends and families; it preempts face-to-face exchanges; it shrinks the world with its disregard for time and distance [Fallows 2003].
That internet has changed the way in which we communicate is beyond question. For many people e-mail has virtually replaced the traditional letter and even the phone as the most preferred choice of conversation. E-mail is a form of communication that has been accepted faster then ever. In less than 2 decades it has developed from obscurity to a communication medium that has been accepted by a large public. E-mail was the first killer application of the internet, and hundreds of millions of people started to use it.
E-mail is easy, efficient, simple and informal. It is a way to keep in touch with a number of people, a democratising force in labour organizations and less pushy than the telephone.
As the use of e-mail spread the drawback of this form of communication also became more distinct. In the meantime it is not unusual for many internetters to receive 100 or more e-mails per day. The e-mail circuit has been drastically contaminated by unasked-for commercial messages: spam derived from sp(iced) (h)am.
E-mail is a tempting form of communication. First of all because e-mail is an intermediate stage between the desire to be productive (or to feel at least productive) and the completely human tendency to avoid challenging work.
The problem is that e-mail floods in all day. People who compulsively check and answer their e-mail do not only spend a lot of time on it, but cut up their day in smaller pieces. This is at the expense of the depth and richness that stems from lasting concentration on one single task. On the other hand, we learn to multitask more and more: some people deal with their e-mails while they are on the phone or in a meeting.
In our hurried world even the fast reaction of e-mail is still not fast enough. You cannot know if the person you are sending an e-mail is online at that specific moment. And when you send more e-mails back and forth to the same person, you usually have to click a number of times to read and answer the message, and to send an e-mail. That is why Instant Messaging has become so popular.
|How e-mail works|
For sending electronic messages an e-mail client is used. The most famous e-mail clients are Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and Pegasus. One can also register with free e-mail services, such as Hotmail or Yahoo. Thereby use is made of an e-mail client that is operated via a web page (web mail).
Whichever client one chooses, it always does at least four things:
More advanced e-mail clients can even do a lot more.
With an e-mail client on your pc you can send and receive messages. The only thing you need is an e-mail server that can be contacted by the client. When someone sends an e-mail the e-mail client makes a connection with the e-mail server. The server receives the name of the recipient, the name of the sender and the text of the message.
E-mail is a rather crude form of communication. It eliminates the sound of the voice, the body language, and a series of social signals and contexts that make it possible to make a distinction between the different meanings that are communicated with the same words. Therefore e-mail has a limited emotional bandwidth. Because most messages are written fast and in a concise form, it is very easy to misunderstand one another.
But the same jovial informality that makes people to the point and careless in their emails also boosts a certain openness and intimacy that are not encouraged by other forms of communication. This uninhibiting effect is related to what people do when they have put on their carnival costumes. They become bolder and extremer.
In e-mail people often converse more personal and intimate than elsewhere. But they often also communicate more precise than in verbal conversations. Because the communication goes by letter people concentrate on what they have to say, they compose sentences, they see to it that they make their point clear, they correct themselves and think before they react. E-mail is a form of interpersonal communication that offers room for reflection and self correction.
|E-mail in companies and organizations|
Just like most private persons, companies and organizations experienced the infrastructure of the internet via the implementation of organization-internal e-mail systems. As the company networks were used more intensively, the care and maintenance of e-mail servers increased. Within and between organizations more and more e-mails were exchanged. This increase of vital company correspondence had greater consequences for the loss and delay of messages. Managing e-mail systems became a specialty on its own.
The vast majority of companies manages their own e-mail facilities and does not make use of outsourcing or commercial e-mail services. Companies organize and manage their own communication facilities because they want to preserve the safety of the e-mail facility, because they want to exercise precise control over administrative processes, and because they want to integrate e-mail facilities in internal and external company applications in a flexible way.
Companies and organizations developed their own expertise necessary to manage these systems. E-mail became a communication instrument that is of paramount importance for the vitality of the organization. The standards for reliability for these systems increased rapidly. Due to the widespread use of e-mail the accent shifted to scalability and managing matters. Exchangeability with external e-mail networks became an important challenge. Private e-mail systems communicated with each other via gateways, until internet-wide standards eliminated the need for such a technology.
The expenses for e-mail have become part of the embedded overhead of companies. Although the costs per message have decreased strongly the past 10 to 20 years, the total investments in company-internal e-mail systems have increased continuously. This applies mainly to distributed international companies. The costs also rise because organizations use e-mail more and more for goals it was not designed for. For example, e-mail is overused to send large files. It is also used to support real-time collaborative programmes, such as discussion groups and interactive presentations.
E-mail systems require intensive maintenance and support. More than 50% of the total costs (TCO = total cost of ownership) for e-mail systems consist of personnel costs that go with planned and unplanned downtime. The second largest cost components are personnel costs that are connected with administration and maintenance (20%) [source].
These high costs could tempt companies and organizations to reconsider their own e-mail facilities. The savings that could be reached with outsourcing in the long run justify abandoning internal e-mail facilities. But most organizations don't do this because they have already invested so much in personnel, software, equipment and integration.
|Internet pollution: spam|
E-mail has grown to be a capricious communication form. In every technological progress lies the image of the hydra: the very technology that enables us to quickly exchange messages with others, is used to obscure our communication by large-scale distribution of commercial messages. The irony of e-mailing is that it carries the promise of fast and efficient communication, whereas it increasingly carries the threat of a far going commercial penetration in our everyday private lives. Spam costs a lot of money, causes great problems on the internet and causes a lot of trouble.
We are flooded with e-mails and we get much more mail than desired. The relevant information has to be archived and organized by the recipients themselves. In order to organize the incoming messages some people make use of several addresses, including an address that is made known to just a few people. Furthermore, there are all sorts of filters in circulation with which one can sort and prioritise incoming messages.
The anger among the internet users is huge. Their communication via e-mail is clouded by the amount of spam that has to be filtered out or destroyed by hand. That doesnt only cost a lot of time and money, but also carries the risk of accidentally destroying relevant messages. Besides, the bona fide internetters are set against each other because they receive spam that seems to come from someone familiar, but is in fact distributed by commercial sharks.
Spam undermines the integrity of e-mail and degrades virtual life. Due to the commercialisation of the internet people lose faith in their virtual environment. We become insecure because were not sure anymore that we can isolate the e-mails that we need from the bulk of spam theyre surrounded by. Sometimes we dont even know whether important messages still reach us, because were trying to make our spamfilters as sharp as possible. Who hasn't considered blocking all @hotmail.com addresses? If only to be relieved at one go from a bulk of unasked-for, misleading and often downright misplaced or insulting commercial excrescences.
The majority of the e-mail users consider it unpleasant and annoying that they are confronted with unasked-for commercial messages in their online communication. They consider it an shameless invasion in their private lives, and as a morbid and wrongful infringement on their privacy. They find practically all spam unreliable, misleading and dishonest. But they also fear that they are not able to turn the flood of spam and that they will not read relevant messages anymore.
On the other hand, e-mail users build increasingly stronger lines of defence against spam. E-mail is still the most popular online activity. More and more people and organizations make use of spamfilters. With this they are partly supported by the Internet Service Providers that daily block millions of spam messages so that they never reach the letterboxes of their customers (in 2003 AOL blocked 60 percent of her incoming e-mail traffic, which equalizes 67 spam e-mails per inbox per day).
However, the spammers over and over find roundabout ways to get round filters. Nearly every field of an e-mail message can be forged by the sender. Spammers often use fake addresses in the From, Sender, en Reply-to fields (this is also called spamouflage: spam in camouflage). They use any possible trick to penetrate in the electronic letterboxes of people and to extort money from them. They lie about their identity and always claim that you have asked for their mail. Spammers hope that among the millions of people they reach there are some dopes that are so desperate that they accept the offer. That is why spam is mainly directed at people who feel sexually inadequate, who quickly need a loan or who have health problems, and at people who want to earn a lot of money quickly without having anything to do for it.
Those who oppose spam have to keep in mind that one has to deal with completely dishonest, unscrupulous people. Spammers arent bona fide enterprises but robbers who pollute the e-mail traffic on a large scale at our expense. Every piece of information you provide them with is used against you. Everybody knows by now that you should never react to spam. If your reaction arrives at the spammer (often it arrives at a person whose address is abused by the spammer), it only confirms that your address exists and is accessible. In the end this doesnt lead to less but more spam. This also counts for the use of a remove list. If spammers would be willing to remove your address, they would use so many tricks to break through your spamfilters. So don't forget: Never buy from spammers.
The European Directive concerning privacy and electronic communication (2002/58/EG) wants member states to offer guarantees against infringements on the personal privacy of civilians due to undesired communication for the purpose of direct marketing. According to the Directive the receivers of commercial announcements are justified in first giving explicit permission before such communication is directed at them.
Location data are any data processed in an electronic communications network, indicating the geographic position of the terminal equipment of a user of a publicly available electronic communications service. [Directive]
The most controversial subject in the Directive was the regulation of unsolicited communications for purposes of direct marketing via e-mail. The Guideline is not restricted to e-mail in the narrow sense of the word. In the Directive e-mail is broadly defined as any text, voice, sound or image message sent over a public communications network which can be stored in the network or in the recipients terminal equipment until it is collected by the recipient. According to this definition SMS is also counted as e-mail.
Propositions made for the implementation of the European Directive were, in the eyes of specialists, absolutely deplorable. The definition of e-mail is restricted to e-mail in the narrow sense. SMS and voice-mail (e-mail in the broad sense) are excluded. The mailing of spam would be an economic offence. This way consumers can take a spammer to court to get compensation for financial damage. According to Spamvrij (Spamfree) this is not very realistic. After all, damage isn't caused by one spam from one spammers, but by all spam from all spammers. Social Democratic Party member Martijn van Dam has made propositions that can improve the maintenance of the law, require the sender to offer the burden of proof (demonstrable confirmed opt-in) and make it possible to fine offenders.
The essence of the new communication law is that senders of commercial, idealistic or charitable e-mail messages must prove that the person addressed has asked to receive the e-mails. The Dutch Lower House should have passed the law on 1 November 2003. Controversies on content and maintenance of the law, however, as yet have lead to postponement of the vote [source].
In March 2002 internet provider Xs4all started summary proceedings against the spam company Abfab. She demands that Abfab immediately stops sending unasked-for bulk e-mail to the Xs4all subscribers. The internet provider was put in the right by the judge. The judge decided that Xs4all has no legal duty of transport and can forbid her own customers to send spam. Therefore the provider may forbid a third party, such as Abfab to send, via her systems, unasked-for commercial messages to her customers. Although Abfab was forbidden to send spam to e-mail addresses that end on a domain name with the word Xs4all in it, but not to customers with their own domain name and secondary users of the mail servers. The partial victory on the spammer, however, was overruled by the Higher Court on July 18. The Court determined that Xs4all had to guarantee free traffic, also for spammers.
Still, provider Xs4all was eventually proved right by the Supreme Court on 12 March 2004. They judged that the e-mail servers are property of the provider and that she can refuse anyone based on a convenient justification. The right on the freedom of speech had to yield for this principle. An internet provider is and remains the owner and boss of his piece of internet and therefore has no duty of transport. The owner of systems for internet access therefore has the same rights as in offline social traffic where property is protected. According to the Supreme Court spammers by definition infringe on the computer capacity, the transmission capacity and the customer file of internet providers.
Providers and internet users were extremely pleased with this clear verdict, but also know that this doesnt end the spam problem. Even if Abfab has gone bankrupt due to these lawsuits. A small victory in the continual struggle against commercial pollution of the internet.
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dr. Albert Benschop