Peculiarities of Cyberspace

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.

“We typically choose to do the thing that demands the least of us first. (...) E-mail has been constructed so that you can do the business at hand easily and efficiently. You have the sense, sitting at your keyboard, or orchestrating a life. It feels satisfying and productive without much effort” [Sherry Turkle].

The other irresistible enticement of e-mail is more unorthodox. Lee Sproull calls this the power of intermittent reinforcement. According to her the computer is now the ultimate Skinner box: “You keep coming back for the reward.”

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

First e-mail
The first e-mail was sent in 1971 by an engineer named Ray Tomlinson. Prior to this, you could only send messages to users on a single machine. The breakthrough of Tomlinson was the ability to send messages to other machines on the internet, with the help of the @ sign to designate the receiving machine. Tomlinson doesn’t recall the first message that he sent back in the late 1971. “I think I may have just dragged my fingers across the keyboard” [source_1; source_2].

An e-mail message is a simple text message that is sent to someone else. E-mail messages are usually short pieces of text. Longer messages are usually added to these messages as attachments. Although the e-mail protocol is less efficient for sending larger files, this still happens on a large scale.

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:

  • It shows a list of all messages in your mailbox. You see the headers of the messages showing who has sent the mail, the subject of the mail, the time and date of the message and the size of the message;
  • You can select the headers of a message and read the body of the e-mail message;
  • You can create and send new messages. You type the e-mail address of the recipient and the subject of the message. Then you type the body of the message;
  • Most e-mail clients allow you to add attachments to the messages you send and save the attachments from messages you receive.

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 communication

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.


Each medium has its own possibilities and restrictions to transmit communicative signals. In principle simple signals can be communicated via any medium. Complex interaction, however, requires media that are able to transmit complex signals. According to the theory of the media-richness [Daft/Lengel 1984; Daft e.a 1987] the information-carrying capacity of a medium is based on four criteria:

  1. Interactivity: the speed of the feedback. Rich media provide the opportunity for immediate feedback so that participants can adjust their messages in response to signals of understanding or misunderstanding, questions, or interruptions. Synchronous media are richter that asynchronous media in this respect.
  2. Multiple cues: the ability to communicate a number of signals such as body language and verbal sounds. Rich media allow a full range of verbal, paralinguistic, intonation, proxemic, and kinetic cues. These cues not only convey the literal content of ideas, but also intensity and subtleties of meaning. Lean media put constraints on the range of cues that may be used in communication. Face-to-face meetings are rich media in this respect, while text is lean.
  3. Language variety: the use of natural language rather than numbers. Media differ in the range of meaning that language symbols may convey. Numbers convey greater precision of meaning than natural language, and visual or graphic symbols carry a greater range of interpretations. Rich media such as video conferencing allow the use of a high-variety language, lean media such as shared numeric databases restrict language use to low-variety language.
  4. Social-emotional cures: the ability to express feelings and emotions immediately. Rich media in this respect are media which permit communicators to have “personal feelings and emotions infuse the communication. Some massages may be tailored to the frame of reference, needs, and current situation of the receiver” [Daft e.a. 1997:358]

The potential richness of a medium is the sum of scores on each of these information-richness factors. The actual richness of a medium is determined by how users use it.

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.

Spam pays
There is only one reason why spam terrorizes our communication via e-mail: money, or rather greed for money. How immoral or deformed it may be, harassing unknown people by e-mail is commercially effective. A research project by Pew [2003] shows that one out of three internet users clicks on a link in a spam message once in a while. Seven percent of the internetters actually places an order. The unrestrained greed of the spammers is satisfied at the cost of the internet users. As long as this is the case there will be a battle for the commercial colonizing of our private life.

Internet is ravaged by ‘businessmen’ who muddle our personal and professional communication because they send enormous quantities of commercial e-mails to people who haven’t asked for it. In the meantime this contamination of electronic messaging has assumed such proportions that many people start turning their backs to e-mail [Pew]. While e-mail used to be the main cause of the success of the internet —it was a killer app—, it seems to become more and more a stumbling block now. Spam appears to kill the killer app of the internet [Orson Swindle during a hearing in the American Congress in June 2003].

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 doesn’t 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 we’re not sure anymore that we can isolate the e-mails that we need from the bulk of spam they’re surrounded by. Sometimes we don’t even know whether important messages still reach us, because we’re trying to make our spamfilters as sharp as possible. Who hasn't considered blocking all addresses? If only to be relieved at one go from a bulk of unasked-for, misleading and often downright misplaced or insulting commercial excrescences.

Confirmed opt-in
The opt-out principle is unreliable and perverse. It forces the spam receiver to undertake action. Why should e-mailers have to deregister for something they haven’t registered for? Opposite the opt-out principle is the opt-in principle. The receiver himself takes the initiative and makes clear that he wants to receive advertising by e-mail from a specific provider. In order to prevent that anyone —including the spammer himself— can register each random address, this registration has to be confirmed. With the confirmed opt-in the owner of the e-mail address is sent a request for confirmation with the question whether he actually wants to register for advertising. If the owner of the e-mail address in question doesn’t send a confirmation, it has to be concluded that some else registered that address, or that the keeper of the address has changed his mind.

Internet users become indecisive about the question if they have to click on the ‘remove me’ button. Inexperienced internetters may still believe that they can be spared further commercials when they click on the ‘remove me’ button. Internetters that know all the tricks meanwhile know that they confirm their existence this way and are placed higher on the lists of the spammers this way. Some spammers use such a deregistration (‘opt-out’) merely as a confirmation that the address is actively read. Such addresses are extra interesting for spammers and such a confirmation only makes the address more valuable for them.

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 aren’t 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 doesn’t 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.

HTML and Java script
Spammers often use tricks to pretend their mail is legitimate. They often use names of other, bona fide companies. When the mail is read as HTML, spammers have more possibilities to hide their actual urls and can, by means of cookies, make a confirmation to their servers that you have received their mail. Spammers can also send Javascript with which extra information is collected behind your back. In some programmes you can switch off HTML. You lose little, because every mail that cannot be read as plain text is nearly always spam.

The main worry of most people who use e-mail is the increasing flood of spam they receive as soon as their address is known. People receive more and more spam, polluting their mailbox in such a way that they lose sight of messages that are wanted. However, spam is not only reprehensible because it blatantly intervenes in legitimate communication. It gives many users the feeling that they are permanently attacked by deceitful cheats who try to deceive and rob people with ghastly propositions. For spammers the internet is only a means to cheat and intimidate people.

Anti-spam legislation

European Directive
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.

Traffic and Location Data
Traffic data are “any data processed for the purpose of the conveyance of a communication on an electronic communications network or for the billing thereof.”
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 Directive contains additional guarantees as to the confidential character of communication and the related traffic data (art. 5), changes in the processing of traffic data (art. 6), the introduction of a specific regulation for location data (art. 9), a change of the regulation for unsolicited communication (art. 13) and the regulation for lists of subscribers (art. 12).

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 recipient’s terminal equipment until it is collected by the recipient.” According to this definition SMS is also counted as e-mail.

Dutch Legislation

“Commerce is marching on and on and more and more often companies try to break in your private life to demand your attention for their products. It is the legislator’s task to protect the private lives of people against those excesses. This can be done by drawing up rules about the unasked-for for harassing of people by e-mail, sms and telephone” [Martijn van Dam – Social Democratic Party, 23.10.03].

The ‘Telecommunication Law’ (TW) regulates for a great part the market for telecommunication and internet services.

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.

From the meticulous to the pliable
Earlier Minister of Justice Donner expressed himself positively about a penalization of sending unasked-for commercial mails en sms-s. However, in October 2003 the minister suddenly took up another position: the penalization was seriously advised against. The management of the employers' organization VNO-NCW had suggested that companies like to receive spam from each other. Would bona fide enterprisers really not want a ban on spamming to commercial mail addresses? Or would it give birth to a really competitive market? That was the liberal point of view of Minister Jorritsma (Liberal Party) in October 2000. Spam would be profitable for the economy and the development of the internet, and should therefore not be punished. “In general one can say that commercial advertising are a driving force in the development of the internet,” according to Jorritsma [source].

According to Minister Donner imposing an opt-in system on companies is in violation of the European Directive. According to this Directive a company is allowed to send unasked-for bulk e-mails to present or former customers. However, this is only permitted under some strict conditions. The company can only send e-mails for similar products and an opt-out facility always has to be included. Moreover, the identity of those by order of whom the message was conveyed has to be known. In any case it is forbidden to send commercial e-mails in which the identity of the sender is masked or hidden.

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 doesn’t 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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