Why email?

Human potential ← Open communications ← Email ← Lightmeter

Most messaging networks are created to serve their creators. Email is designed to serve humankind. For over 60 years brilliant technicians have architected email to provide the greatest good to the greatest number. These motivations inspired design principles which make email to this day our most popular and resilient communication system.

People over profit

Unlike any other messenger of comparable size, freedom and utility are baked into email’s foundations. Here are the political benefits they provide:

  1. It’s a network of independent servers and all members are equal (like the Internet itself)
  2. There’s no centralised power or authority
  3. Millions of independently-run email networks exist, serving every kind of community, in every nation on earth; this means:
  4. It’s extremely resistant to censorship, disruption, and attacks against the network as a whole
  5. Thousands of independently developed mail viewers (clients) and managers (server apps) exist, because:
  6. The email protocols (APIs) are free and unlimited: they’re Open Standards, which means:
  7. Email is available to users in more languages, for more devices and operating systems, for more types of special user needs, than any other communication system in history
  8. The protocols (APIs) themselves are limitlessly extensible, allowing anyone to add new features to email messages without external permission. For example, we might look forward to support for: virtual reality content, self-deleting videos, or quantum-proof encryption. Far-fetched? Check the variety and history of MIME types.

The flexibility which these characteristics engender enabled email to evolve repeatedly over decades of use to meet the changing needs of its enormous userbase.

Freedom needs protection

Email’s benefits are taken for granted the world over. And today they are under threat. The incalculable value email generates across all business verticals has made it an attractive target for subversion and control. Thousands of competing networks, created by self-serving businesses in an attempt to supplant email, have failed. Now, the world’s largest software companies are breaking independent email networks in an effort to dominate and control email inboxes themselves.

Having first embraced email, they are changing its plumbing in a way which is imperceptible to most users, but breaks compatibility with independent mail server operators, including businesses, individuals and even governments. With this strategy, they want to capture the world’s most critical communication channel in order to mine our messages and habits for advertising data, and lock us in to unrelated services which are even harder to leave.

If they succeed, the #1 digital channel will no longer be free, independent, and resilient. We will no longer control our primary digital identity: our email address. Companies will be able to interrogate and kill our digital selves without trial or recourse, and governments and private entities will monitor and shut down discourse when it suits them, just as Twitter did to Trump. One of the foundations upon which digital society rests will crumble.

Guardians of liberty

How many visits did you make to your inbox today? When’s the last time the connection failed? Email is critical infrastructure — 20% of confidential files in the cloud are stored as email attachments. We demand and receive greater stability from free email services than from e-commerce, news, or online banking, and we don’t even realise it.

But email is more complex than each of these, due to a diverse ecosystem of thousands of client and server programs, and tens of millions of independently run email networks. Email is also subject to more criminal attacks and presents the greatest risk to network security.

Managing all this is the work of dedicated and usually invisible system administrators, often referred to as email operations, or Mailops.

Keeping mail running smoothly is like operating a factory with unknown input materials which are delivered at unpredictable schedules from malicious suppliers, with a zero-tolerance delivery schedule, to customers who frequently let attackers onto the factory floor. Factory machinery needs constant supervision due to the bizarre and inappropriate materials that suppliers keep shovelling into it — yet it provides no monitoring or alarm systems. The customers somehow have no idea that the factory even exists, and together with the factory’s owners (your bosses) don’t seem to value what it produces, while simultaneously being totally and continuously dependent upon it.

This is the thankless lot of mailops professionals. It is their job to fight black-box algorithms and tech-giant cartels to get our mail delivered to any inbox in the world with split-second speed. When Gmail and Outlook lie to and ignore those guys, we don’t know or care. When someone else’s mailserver on the other side of the world is incapable of properly sending or receiving our messages, we get angry.

They fight an invisible war for our communications 24 hours each day. For our order confirmations. For our meeting reminders. For our unwanted newsletters. For our reset passwords. Each time one of them gives up and sells out (outsourcing their mail stack) to Google, the network gets smaller, more fragile, and less free. Each defeat is a vote for self-serving corporate dictatorship over 4.2 billion email users.

Vanguard action

It is for these reasons that the European Union invested last year in new email infrastructure tools Lightmeter and Delta Chat via the €7m Next Generation Internet fund, to keep decentralised communication alive for a “human-centric Internet”. European institutions have a long history of supporting email, having previously funded core email security technologies including OpenDKIM, OpenDMARC, and GnuPG (the military-grade email encryption system used by Ed Snowden to leak NSA files).

These tools will make mailops easier at the infrastructure level, but demand for independent services must come from email users to make running those services worthwhile for companies who aren’t Microsoft or Google. Many independent email hosting services exist, including several free of charge, and recommendations to use them abound from mainstream news organisations and security experts alike. Will this be enough to make people switch to freedom-preserving providers?

If you think digital freedom is worth ten minutes, switch your primary email account to an independent provider (either free or paid), and start using it. The big mail platforms offer automatic forwarding of mail to your new address for convenience.

So spare a thought for the humble email the next time a message notification pings. Consider the millions of servers and army of technicians who keep its peer-to-peer network operating every second of the day, negotiating the path of each message through a wild diaspora of open source apps, and Open Standard protocols. Those systems exist, and those people are working, for you, and for freedom, keeping our most important communication platform, undeplatformable.