The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When I first started reading this article about a woman who didn't pay her bill and was denied access to her e-mail, I was wholeheartedly on the side of the Internet Service Provider (ISP). The issue, however, wasn't so much that she didn't have access to her e-mail but that her account was still collecting e-mail while suspended. As a result, people e-mailing her didn't know that she wasn't receiving her mail since they never received "delivery failure" reports. But she didn't pay her bill, right? So she got what she deserved? Well, maybe not.

First, she didn't pay her bill because her ISP didn't bill her -- an accounting error. When the ISP finally got around to back billing her, she disputed the charges. She claims to have come to an agreement with the ISP to split the charges and that the ISP later reneged on that deal. In the meantime, her account was suspended, and she switched to another service.

The ISP, like most ISPs in the world, continued to collect e-mail for the suspended account until it was finally cancelled. The logic is that most customers eventually pay their bills and wish to receive all their e-mail once the account has been reactivated. It also protects the ISP in the sense that if a billing error occurs and an account that shouldn't be suspended is, the afflicted customer won't lose any mail because of the ISP's mistake.

However, the extenuating circumstances of this case, the ISP's mistake and seemingly uncooperative stance, the customer's subsequent switch to another ISP, and an apparent case of bad timing highlight the problems with current industry practices. Those people attempting to correspond with the customer had no idea that she wasn't receiving their e-mail, and she had no idea that they were trying to reach her.

Ironically enough, the article about the case, posted by an online publisher, unintentionally highlights certain misunderstandings about technology. It assumes that things like "delivery confirmations" are technically feasible and that ISPs simply choose not to implement them. This is simply not the case with current technology. E-mail clients such as Microsoft Outlook try to simulate this behavior, but a lack of a true standard prevents it from working in many cases.

The fact is, e-mail is an asynchronous means of communication that doesn't rely on someone being connected to the Internet to read a message. A single message may touch half a dozen computers on its way to the recipient. There is currently no way for the ISP to 1) know when a user has read a particular message and 2) reliably get a confirmation message back to the sender.

Besides, do you really want your ISP to know what e-mail you read and when? That would most certainly fall under the heading "be careful what you ask for, because you might just get it."

Along these lines, the article also seems to suggest that change of this sort can be legislated, or at least doesn't point out the fault in such an assertion. In explanation, to change the entire Internet over to a system which provided this facility would take years. Every e-mail server in the world would need to be upgraded. Every e-mail client on every user's computer would also have to change, a process that would take years. HDTV anyone?

Other questionable assumptions made in the article are that ISP billing systems can handle account suspensions in the manner discussed. Keep in mind, the commercial ISP has existed for less than a decade. Software to support the ISP is still very immature and very incapable of managing disparate systems fluidly, including e-mail, hosting, dial-up, etc. We wish that it did, but it doesn't. So, such fundamental changes would also require modifications to most billing systems.

Nevertheless, the problem exists and needs to be solved. It may take time -- in fact, it should take time as knee-jerk reactions and quick legislation will cause more trouble. In the meantime, cases like this should push ISPs into implementing workarounds that help solve the core problem. User's, on the other hand, should take nothing for granted when communicating over the Internet. We are truly in new territory, and there are very few maps to guide us.

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