Email Revolution

September 15, 2007

You may be too new to the internet to remember email in the early days. Everyone now associates it with the chores of wading through spam, impersonal communication from your colleges and hoping your message doesn't get filtered by one of the many protective layers most companies have.

Time was, email functioned as a guaranteed way to get a message to someone you knew. If you sent an email, it would either arrive or you'd find out why not. If you had email waiting for you, it was exciting - like receiving a personal handwritten letter in the post from an old friend. Nowadays, the cherished personal email is likely to be destroyed automatically because the server decides it is spam. Actual spam is just as likely to arrive and take over your computer with a virus.

So with this in mind, I propose a new two part email manifesto:

Part A: Protocol

This is the stuff that runs underneath to pass email from place to place. You don't need to know about it, but your computer does. The current protocol system was built many years ago where the internet was filled mostly with geeks who didn't really want to harm anything, so it isn't appropriate now that the scam artists and marketers have moved in.

1. You can only send email if both you and your server can be strongly authenticated. At the moment more or less anyone can pretend to be more or less anyone else really rather easily. Strong authentication of your identity would fix this.

2. Your ability to send email can be revoked if you don't play nice. This would work at a user and server level, so if you act as an idiot then you can be banned from emailing people. Or if you run a dodgy server to send spam, that can be banned in its entirety. Be good, or try your scams elsewhere.

3. Email clients will encrypt sent messages using a key requested from the recipient beforehand. This also gives the recipient an ideal chance to not receive email from you if they don't want to - if they don't give you their encryption key, you can't talk to them. Tough.

4. Encryption keys shall only work for the authenticated person they were given to in the first place. Ie, if gives a key to, at least the ability to spam Bob can't be spread to

Part B: Email formats
Currently there's a mess of formats hacked over the basic original idea of sending simple text. You can send HTML, rich text, executable code, embedded video, links out to other resources and all sorts. Everything beyond text is open to some form of abuse, so your email client has to have loads of rubbish to reign in that usage. Things like the email client asking you if you want to download images because they could be used as tracking. That's the software manufacturer deferring their security responsibilities onto you by asking you a question you can't possibly hope to answer.

1. Plain text only. No you can't have that in bold. Nor italics or underlined. Tough. Get your point across with words, not fancy colours. And no proportional fonts either.

2. No attachments. If you want to send a file, you have to uuencode it. If you want to receive that file, you have to decode it yourself using the appropriate tools which may not be built into the client. If you don't know what uuencoding is (and won't find out for yourself) then you can't be trusted with a computer and shouldn't have access to whatever file was sent to you anyway. Take up knitting instead.

3. Top-posters will be banned after three offenses. Relative newcomers to the internet don't know that it was once the height of bad manners to post your response to an email at the top of the mail. The proper technique is to let your email client indent your friend's text with greater-than symbols at the start of each line, then to write your responses just below the relevant bit. This works to preserve context, and everyone can remember what on earth they were all talking about in the first place.

This article is a rant of course. None of the things above are really workable because people are happy with their colourful fonts and top posting and trojan executable attachments. People are used to spam and forget that it wasn't always like that. People accept that every now and then their computer will be demolished by a virus.

Wouldn't it be nice to go back to the old ways though?

At least for aging computer geeks who can actually remember them.


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  1. stephenw32768 says:
    September 16, 2007 @ 07:38 — Reply

    Absolutely Right(tm).

  2. Matt says:
    September 17, 2007 @ 06:57 — Reply

    Also, we need to make sure the system filters out all emails from management that start with or contain the string "Could you just....." This would save me a great deal of wasted time.

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