The Trouble With Email

Rosie McSweeney, a college student in Arizona, thought she was sending an email to a friend. But she hit a wrong key and inadvertently sent it racing across the Internet into the mailboxes of thousands of strangers.

Embraced for its convenience, e-mail has become for Internet users the fast and cheap communications medium of the '90s. Its nature lends itself to informal use, complete with misspellings, quirky abbreviations and casual references to friends, co-workers or employers.

Trouble is, those casual messages sometimes get misdirected, or they can have long life spans, hibernating for years on a computer backup in the company's basement. Sometimes old email messages never die.

"When you have a written memo, you rip it up and it's all gone," said Terry Loscalzo, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in Internet issues. "Many employees don't understand that when you hit the Delete button it does not delete the e-mail for all eternity.... It can still be retrieved very easily."

The misdirected e-mail from McSweeney was an innocuous note to a friend. But that didn't stem her embarrassment after she made a surprisingly common mistake and sent it to thousands of people who participate in an Internet discussion group she uses.

"It was a horrible feeling," she said. As her message raced across the Internet, she said, "It's like when you realize that you've just locked your keys in your car. The dangling key chain seems to taunt you."

A report earlier this year by Forrester Research Inc. said 15 percent of the U.S. adult population, or 30 million people, uses email. That number is expected to grow to 135 million by 2001.

"There was sort of a gentlemen's rule that attorneys wouldn't look into it, because nobody understood how it worked," said David Sorkin, associate director of the Chicago-based Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law. "That's disappearing in this age of litigation. It's almost routine to investigate whether there are electronic documents."

An e-mail from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is included in the government's antitrust lawsuit. Gates described in a July 1996 message how he tried to persuade the chief executive officer at Intuit Inc. not to distribute Netscape's Internet browser with Intuit's popular personal finance software.

"I was quite frank with him that if he had a favor we could do for him what would cost us something like ($1 million), to do that in return for switching browsers in the next few months, I would be open to doing that," Gates wrote.

Microsoft contends the email messages, quoted liberally throughout the government antitrust lawsuits, were taken out of context.

Unlike paper documents, it can be difficult to verify authorship of an e-mail, which carries no telltale pen-and-ink signature. Even if the mail account is protected by a password, that does not prohibit someone else from aining access to the account.

Written by Ted Bridis
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