From its roots as an obscure mode of communication among computer hobbyists, academics, and military personnel, e-mail use has burgeoned to a medium of mass communication. According to published estimates from International Data Corp., a technology market research firm, as of 1998 there were 82 million personal and business e-mail accounts in the United States. For comparison, that figure was equal to half the number of telephones in use, an impressive proportion given that e-mail has been in existence only a quarter as long as the telephone.
E-mail's late 1960s inception came about from the work of Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist working for a defense contractor. Tomlinson's work was for the U.S. Defense Department's Arpanet, the project that later spawned the Internet.
E-mail technology for the Internet (as opposed to closed private systems) follows a number of universal standards as codified by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These standards help ensure that e-mail, like Internet communications in general, is not bounded by platform or geography.
An e-mail message is essentially one or more files being copied between computers on a network such as the Internet. This transfer of files is automated and managed by a variety of computer programs working in consort. A simple e-mail may be a single text file; if special formatting, graphics, or attachments are used in the message, multiple binary files or encoded Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) files may be transmitted in a single e-mail message.
A typical e-mail system consists of at least three software components with supporting hardware:
The e-mail application is, of course, where all e-mail originates or terminates. Full-featured e-mail applications often reside on the user's local computer; however, it is also common to use server-based e-mail programs in which the user logs into a computer through a terminal program or a web browser and utilizes e-mail capabilities that reside entirely on the remote computer. The latter case is typical of many of the free e-mail services offered on the web. Lotus Development Group's Lotus Notes has been the market-leading e-mail application for corporate users, with a user base of 25 million in 1998. That year, it was followed by a fast-growing challenger, Microsoft Corporation's Exchange package, which garnered 18 million licensed users.
The message transfer agent (MTA), also called a mail engine, is behind-the-scenes software that runs on a mail server, the computer(s) dedicated to sorting and routing e-mail in a network. The MTA determines how incoming and outgoing messages should be routed. Thus, if a message is sent from one internal corporate user to another, the MTA normally routes the e-mail within the corporate system without sending it through the Internet. If, however, a message is intended for a user outside the organization, the mail server transmits the file to an external gateway or a public Internet backbone router that will, in turn, deliver the message to the recipient's system. This is a simplification, as a message may actually be passed through several intermediate computers on the Internet before reaching its destination.
The message store is the software and hardware that handles incoming mail once the MTA has determined that mail belongs to a specific user on the system. The store may be configured to work in different ways, but, in essence it is user-specific directory space on a network server in which unread incoming messages are stored for future retrieval by the e-mail applications. This is where, for instance, e-mail sent overnight sits until the recipient turns on his computer the next day and opens his e-mail program. The software configuring the message store may automatically delete copies of the messages once they are downloaded to the user's computer or it may archive them. Message stores are also capable of automatically categorizing mail and performing other mail-management tasks.
In spite of all its conveniences, e-mail is still a notoriously insecure method of communication, particularly in corporate environments. Technologically, most of the security encryption tools and other privacy safeguards available on the mass market are easily broken by experienced hackers. It is even simpler to forge an e-mail from someone using their address. Furthermore, what many employees don't realize is that their employers can—and do—legally monitor e-mail on the corporate system. A series of court cases have arisen from such activities, and the courts have upheld companies' rights to control information transmitted on their computer systems. Common information systems practices such as scheduled backups of network data can make the process of e-mail monitoring even easier for employers. Employer e-mail surveillance has already taken on seemingly excessive zeal: one company allegedly reported an employee to the police for sending a fellow employee an e-mail describing how he was forced to put a pet to sleep; the employer misunderstood the e-mail as a death threat against a coworker.
In response to such circumstances, some observers have concluded that corporate e-mail users should assume there is no privacy in their e-mail communications. A representative from a well-known Internet applications company likened it to sending a postcard in conventional mail—the entire message is visible to anyone who chooses to look.
Because of the contentious legal and ethical issues surrounding e-mail surveillance and misuse, as well as problems with excessive use of e-mail, copyright violation, and the ease of sending offensive messages, many corporations have instituted formal e-mail policies that inform employees of their rights and obligations. Some aspects of a strong e-mail policy include
Articulating and enforcing such policies has helped companies prevail in lawsuits—or avoid them altogether. Companies could be liable, for example, if they consistently allow harassing messages to circulate between employees. Still, in 1998 a survey of businesses indicated that only a minority had any sort of e-mail policy, and even fewer had a strong policy that employees were required to sign.
Several forms of e-mail monitoring are practiced, ranging from routine, comprehensive surveillance to occasional inquiries when suspicions arise. Some security experts recommend the latter approach, which is much less resource-intensive. It is also possible to electronically automate surveillance so that, for example, all e-mail header and size information is logged by a computer. Consistent trafficking of very large e-mail messages may suggest inappropriate usage, depending on the employee's job. With automated tracking, corporate officials can focus on screening messages that are most likely to violate policy, e.g., identifying e-mail that contains discriminatory language. Monitoring can also be harnessed to protect the corporate system from external abuses such as large broadcasts of unsolicited e-mail, or "spam."
In 1998 there were an estimated 40 million business e-mail users. For companies, e-mail represents simultaneously a source of costs to the business and a tool for cost-savings or even new revenues. Obvious costs associated with e-mail include buying the hardware and software, maintaining the system, and the staff hours spent using e-mail.
If the time spent reading and sending e-mail is less than the amount the employee would have spent otherwise (or accomplishes more per unit of time), then e-mail achieves a cost advantage for the business. It is not clear how often this is the case, however. A number of studies have reported that e-mail use hasn't so much supplanted other modes of business communication, but added to them. A 1998 Gallup poll suggested that people receive an average of 190 business communications of all kinds, including e-mail, each day, an increase over previous levels. Such findings have led some to believe that if left uncontrolled, e-mail could be sapping productivity.
Meanwhile, marketing organizations are increasingly using e-mail to reach customers, through both solicited and unsolicited messages. The market research firm Forrester Research claimed that, in 1998, broadcast e-mail service was a fledgling $8 million industry, but by 2002 it was expected to blossom into a $250 million trade. Moreover, for companies selling products and services via solicited e-mail, the medium was forecast to generate $952 million in revenue by 2002. Although laws passed in state legislatures could limit the uses of unsolicited e-mail, the arena clearly represents untapped revenue for some companies.
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