Should ISPs Be Required To Forward Email?

The government is weighing whether ISPs should be required to forward email after customers switch providers. Freelance writer Gail Mortenson filed a petition with the FCC claiming that she lost business because AOL and Time Warner refused to forward her emails for six months. The FCC doesn’t seem overly interested in the petition, but Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is watching closely to see how the FCC proceeds.

Internet providers, including Time Warner Cable Inc., Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc., as well as Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., which provide e-mail services, declined to comment. Several said it’s the first time they’ve heard about the issue.

Kate Dean, executive director of the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association —- a trade group whose members include AOL, Verizon and Comcast —- said it will respond to Mortenson’s petition, but declined to make any comments until then.

Some companies, such as Yahoo! and Google, allow their e-mail users to forward incoming mail to another address. There are other companies, such as Pobox.com, that also provide an e-mail forwarding service.

Richi Jennings, an analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research, said he imagines that the FCC could mandate that companies provide a free e-mail forwarding service, but doubts that it would

“Such a forwarding service would cost the service providers money in network bandwidth, server utilization and operational overhead,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Service providers typically operate with low margins, relying on volume to make acceptable profit.”

What do you think? Should ISPs be required to forward email? Tell us in the comments.

Government considers mandating Internet service providers to forward customers’ e-mails [AP]
(Photo: bingbing)

Comments

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  1. Indeed they should. Atleast that is my personal opinion.

  2. @Papa Midnight: Chances are more than likely though they will fight this tooth and nail is its just one more step to government regulation of the industry. Of course they don’t want that, but it is better for us in the long run as has been proven overseas. Such is why countries such as Japan, Korea, and others lead the way in the internet. It also means it will make it easier for consumers to hop ISPs and if you’re Comcast or AOL, that’s not a good thing.

  3. parad0x360 says:

    I think they should for at least 6 months. That way in case you missed transfering some accounts you wont be left in the dark when you stop getting emails from them.

  4. Lithium542 says:

    Having been a network admin for quite a while, and after working for my fair share of small, independent ISP’s, doing something like this, even for a customer base of hundreds of thousands, is at best, trivial. If you’re using a hosted solution, just charge them a little bit each month, as storage space, bandwidth, and time aren’t free, nor are they super expensive.

    At several of the ISP’s I worked for, did this for people for as long as they liked, and charged them a buck or two each month, or one full year for something trivial, like 10 dollars. I don’t think this should be a free feature, however it’s something that should always be offered.

  5. ColoradoShark says:

    If they don’t forward they still have the bandwidth of the incoming message and the bandwidth of the return message saying “No one here by that name”. So the bandwidth argument is nonsense.

    Of course, if your email is so precious to you just buy your domain from a service that also forward email wherever you want. I’m paying a pick fat $9 a year for a personal domain to mydomain.com so anyone slightly serious in business should have no trouble coughing up that money. When I change my ISP, I go to mydomain and change the forwarding address. Disclaimer: I do not work for or receive any kickback from mydomain, just a happy customer.

  6. othium says:

    I guess I really don’t see a huge problem. When I get a new e-mail adress, I send a message to everyone on my contact list with my new information. (One letter.) Any website that has my old e-mail adress can be edited in a short period of time.

  7. JKinNYC says:

    Count me in against. When I’ve changed, I was glad to be rid of all that spam. It’s just a little bit of effort to let people I know care (hey, set up a signature), and check the old email for a while when possible (some ISPs like aol have free mail anyway).

    Or, don’t use an ISP specific email address

  8. AT203 says:

    It is not uncommon to change ISPs, that is why I personally never use the provided emails and reccomend to my friends and family to use a webmail service such as Yahoo or Gmail. With webmail it doesn’t matter who your ISP is, and you don’t have to worry about losing your email address.

  9. rbb says:

    Gail Mortenson is not that smart. Why did she give up her AOL account? IT’S FREE!!! I once paid for AOL, but when they changed the rules and allowed you to keep your old account for free, I did so. She should have kept her account and then check it every once in a while for new mail.

    Now, I can see this as being useful in the following situation: You use your ISP, such as cox cable, as your primary e-mail server. Then you move to an are that has comcast and not cox. Then it would be helpful to have 6 months of forwarding from cox.

  10. pentium4borg says:

    I also own my own domain and forward email as coloradoshark described, and it works well. I’m against government regulation of how ISPs handle email.

  11. lihtox says:

    @JKinNYC: The forwarding wouldn’t be automatic; indeed it couldn’t be, since AOL would have no idea if you opened an email account somewhere else.

  12. Jay Levitt says:

    @Coloradoshark: You’re missing a few things:

    1. Most mail to invalid addresses gets rejected, not bounced – that is, it is turned away at the door with a simple SMTP error. That’s much lower-bandwidth than accepting the entire message and then forwarding it on to somewhere else. In fact, bounces are so infrequent, and so often spam-related, that some service providers (DynDNS among them) are now dropping bounces on the floor instead of delivering them.

    2. Bounces die off. Send a message to an invalid address, and you’ll get a bounce, and after a few times you’ll remember to update your address book. If a mailing list gets a bounce, it’ll unsubscribe the now-invalid address. Eventually, the traffic to invalid address drops to near-zero.

    But forwards are invisible. If I move from jay@aol.com to jay@gmail.com, and people who send to jay@aol.com still get through to me, they’ll keep doing it, forever.

    On the web, if you go to an outdated link, it can send a “301 Moved Permanently” response, which will both (a) redirect you to the new link automatically, and (b) tell your browser to update its bookmarks.

    E-mail has no “redirect” concept. Sure, they can send an “advisory” message to human senders, but there’s no way to do it in a way that will automatically update address books – and that message just increases the traffic yet again.

    That said, there are many interesting parallels to number portability, and I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an argument for requiring the one but not the other.

  13. InThrees says:

    Most ISPs offer some sort of “$5 per month keeps your email address alive” option.

    THAT they should do, but required? I don’t know. If you’re conducting business with an isp email, that’s just not really a good practice. If your business has enough volume that losing your email address would be that bad, then your business has enough volume to afford a domain name and some mail accounts. It’s not expensive.

    If I rent a private-sector POB from PakMail or The UPS Store, are they required to forward my mail or packages, or am I required to contact my shippers and clients and tell them my new address?

  14. Bryan Price says:

    It’s not my email address I worry about, it’s my web page. :/ Not that I haven’t updated anything there in quite a while.

  15. XTC46 says:

    @InThrees: I was thinking the same thing about PO boxes. I had a UPS store box and they charge $20/month to forward for you IIRC. Heck they even make you sign an agreement saying you wont do an auto forward with the post office once you leave. I would have hated it if we had to do mail forwarding for all customers when I was an Admin for an email server, it’s extra work and an extra security risk to have random unused open accounts.

    And if you are running a business, dont use a free email service like gmail or your ISP, it looks cheap and unprofessional.

  16. MyCokesBiggerThanYours says:

    Oh god no! If a consumer wants a fixed email address they have every opportunity to register their own domain name. This forwarding nonsense will drive up prices. …And what about free email services, why should they bear the cost for a service email users don’t even compensate for?

  17. Yoni K says:

    How about ISPs attaching ads to all forwarded email? I love the unobtrusive ads in gmail, but if they do me a favor and forward my email, let them put something into the body of the message.

  18. BigNutty says:

    Exactly as stated above. Why should the company be responsible? They are not the U.S.P.S. which our taxes pay to support.

    If you can’t take the time to send an email to all your accounts or friends letting them know your new email address, then you are an idiot.

    This petition with the FCC should be thrown in the trash.

  19. macb says:

    I really don’t think it fair to group Yahoo and Google. Yahoo (like MSN) only allows you to forward your mail if you upgrade to the PAID subscription option.

    Google on the other hand is free, and allows POP, IMAP and mail forwarding for all users, AT NO CHARGE. So if you are switching from Google to something else, you can simply hang on to the free ID and forward all you want. I can’t see how the new law would apply to them at all since they are already doing that.

    For ISPs that you have had a billing relationship with, I can sort of see the need to allow forwarding just as you are allowed to have your old phone service give out your new number for a while (I can’t remember if it is sizx months or longer).

    For MSN and Yahoo, and maybe some other e-mail providers that attempt to bait-and-switch users into going from the free service to a paid subscription I can only think it at least bad ethics coupled with inattentive consumers that allow them to get away with what they do. Even the Wall Street Journal in a recent review of Yahoo credited them with services that they don’t actually provide and failed to mention ongoing problems with the service that are well known among users.

    Yahoo and MSN buy a lot of ad space I guess, which accounts for all the misinformation that somehow never gets corrected about their services.

  20. digitalgimpus says:

    No way.

    Domains and mail hosting is dirt cheap. Anyone with email remotely important enough to need forwarding… can easily afford that route. Can even use a domain and have Gmail.

    Problem with forwarding is there are so many issues:
    1. Spammers could take advantage of this (legally mandated proxies).
    2. More expensive to offer email (forwarding still requires processing/forwarding the email. Much more overhead than just bouncing).
    3. If the forwarded message is spam, the receiving end often doesn’t know who to consider a spammer, hence they may end up on DNSBL (DNS blacklists) even though they are just forwarding the message.

    This idea just doesn’t fly. It breaks a system that barely works as is. If anything it should mandate that businesses who use email own their own domain name and not use a free/isp email account.

  21. AD8BC says:

    Buy your own domain (not expensive), create your own email addresses, and forward them to your email address at your ISP-du-jour.

    Thats what I did. I bought a domain for my family, created email addresses for all the aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sisters, and they forward to wherever they happen to be.

    Although it would be convenient for the ISPs to do this as a service, it should not be required.

    As a side note, when I moved from Michigan to Dallas earlier this year, I cancelled my Comcast account and had to get Charter in Texas. My Comcast email is still active and still delivering to my Outlook Express.

  22. dalejo says:

    I’m not against having the option but the user should have to pay for it. That Gail Mortenson who filed the claim is an idiot though.

  23. 8abhive says:

    For the ISPs and email providers, maintaining six months of churned accounts would add significant overhead. That might be okay IF we paid an email tax to support the system. Without it, this can’t fly.

    I might agree that mail providers must offer the service in return for a reasonable monthly fee, but it opens the door for all kinds of mail regulation on a system that’s fairly dicey to begin with.

    As others have stated, if your email is that important get your own domain & address. They can be had for less than $2/mo.

  24. EtherealStrife says:

    Just use a free service from the start. I see no problem with ISPs rejecting email sent to past clients. No money no email.

  25. Karl says:

    I’m not sure that it should be required, but clearly, AOL did something idiotic here. They terminated her account without any warning (and with it, access to her address book, old messages, etc.) simply because the account was created many years ago by her son when he was under 18. It’s almost as if AOL doesn’t want any customers.

  26. quail says:

    What? There’s still someone using AOL for ISP and email? Is it still the early 90′s or something?

    Sorry, but it’s up to the individual or company to get their email straightened out before moving addresses. A majority of ISPs offer a cheap monthly fee to keep an email address going. Surely cheap enough to allow you some time to get all of the important people notified about the address changeover.

    And anyone who’s life depends on email knows, you get yourself a permanent domain name with email so that it never has to change.

  27. ColoradoShark says:

    @Jay Levitt: Thanks for correcting me.

  28. Josh Smith says:

    If retaining your email address is that important to you spend the the small amount it takes to get your own domain.

  29. RvLeshrac says:

    @8abhive:

    Actually, no, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t add *any* overhead, and would encourage customer churn – which only hurts the bigger providers, and only if they provide sub-par service.

    Does anyone argue that the USPS shouldn’t forward mail without a charge because it adds overhead for them? There, it actually *does* add overhead, since they have to pay for the space to send the mail to a new office.

    What makes the situation with ISPs even worse is that they don’t even offer a mail forwarding service in the vast majority of cases. People would typically be willing to pay a few dollars a month for a “mail was forwarded to blah@foo.com” message and the forwarding, but ISPs typically require that you continue paying the full price of an account with them.

    Many people don’t know or understand how to set up their own email accounts with a domain – they often don’t know where to look. Just because you, me, and the guy three posts down know how to do it and where to purchase service doesn’t mean that Joe Consumer knows.

  30. RvLeshrac says:

    @BigNutty:

    Oh, and the USPS is a private business. They simply have a government contract. It was severed from the government quite a few years ago.

  31. Buran says:

    Got a link that actually works?

  32. 8abhive says:

    @RvLeshrac: When I talk about increased overhead I’m speaking as a past mail admin of our dial-up and hosting ISP. It wasn’t big but we had around 5K active mail accounts when I sold. Some odd percentage always hung around as forwarded accounts. Some of those were simple, others were festering warts with huge traffic and unreliable destinations. Provisioning resources was manual and went through my head at night like a bad game of Tetris. Unless you’re talking about some new scheme I haven’t heard of, forwarding absolutely takes bandwidth, cpu cycles, and disk space.

    I’m all for customer freedom and choice but it isn’t reasonable to expect ISPs to donate upkeep of zero-income virtual identities like email just because they sold someone a $10 web account for a month.

    Remember, the USPS is funded to forward mail.

    In lieu of an email tax, what’s starting to make more sense to me would be for any email provider of non junk accounts to offer forwarding as a for-pay service. It would either mean the end of the junk accounts or a class separation with some accounts deserving forward service and others not. The email provider community would be wise to hustle.

  33. coffee177 says:

    No they should not be required to forward email.

    Its not their responsibility to do this. What the user should do is start the new account before the old one dies and go into the mail settings and forward everything to the new account. Put a tag line at the bottom of all outgoing email to give notice of the change. When the old internet account becomes inactive your all set.

    Instead, Everyone pushes for more goverment regulation. Geez.. Just because they cannot figure out how to do it themselves.

  34. FMulder says:

    Gail Mortenson reminds me of quite a few people I know who use email, but aren’t otherwise very computer – internet savvy and that’s why they feel so dependent on their internet provider — and why she’d feel the need for a lawsuit about forwarding email.

    I’d bet that she really wasn’t aware of other options that we can so easily see. She should have already been backing up her email address book, old emails if they were so important and made a point if this was her business to have email on her own domain. That said, if one of the commenters is right, she also shouldn’t be depending on the AOL account set up by her under 18 year old child.

    She is also a writer, so perhaps she saw it as an opportunity to create something to write about and publicize her name.

  35. jedipunk says:

    I have read a few comments comparing this to USPS. USPS has centralization that is not found with emails. USPS would more easily be compare to ICANN than to email address.

    In reality, I don’t see how this could work. Requiring email to be forwarded indefinitely to a new email address would have a lot of overhead.

    Some people change emails every other year. Forwarding from the original email to the next to the next and so on is ridiculous.

  36. LukeinDC says:

    When I moved from a private email provider (SOLVE360) to gmail last year, I had a lot of problems. Although I paid for my Solve360 email service, they wouldn’t bounce or forward my emails to me at any price. Once my subscription expired, I was cut off. I would much rather see a system where you can pay for such a forwarding service (say $10 for a year) and have all your emails sent to you and an auto response sent to the sender of the email informing them your address has changed. Even having an autoresponse set up for a year is better than unilaterally killing your email address. Like I said, this would be something I’d be willing to pay for. I don’t believe it should be free.

  37. ismith says:

    This is stupid… no business should be required to support you after you no longer require their services. It’s unfair to the business, and as much as you like to demonize companies big and small, some of them are actually there to satisfy a need to their customers in the best way possible.

    If you have any expectation of switching providers, you shouldn’t have your work email on their end (use Gmail, Hotmail, your own mailserver, any of the millions of other options…).

    People should stop whining to the government and FCC and the like, all it takes is a little foresight.

  38. EagleTheta says:

    Only for a limited time. Even the USPS only forwards paper mail for a limited time. At a minimum, the ISP could have their SMTP server issue a REDIRECT response to the E-mail, assuming you give them a forwarding address. That way, at least people e-mailing you would get a bounce back with your updated e-mail address.

  39. ismith says:

    I still think it’s your responsibility; as someone who runs a mail server, I would be incensed if I was required to use up my own resources for people that left the service. You have to tell people when your address changes and if they don’t get the message, that’s unfortunate. If it was a government mail system (like USPS) that would be different, but we’re talking about ISPs. Also, if you do email an address that doesn’t exist you will get a bounce. So you can either call them up and ask for the new address or search your own mail for any new addresses they might have told you.

  40. vladthepaler says:

    if the customer cancels the account, I don’t think it’d necessary for the compay to forward messages. The customer can tell his/her contacts the new address, simple enough. If the company cancels the account, though, it’d be reasonable to require them to forward messages for a short period of time (a month? no more) to allow the customer adequate time to inform everyone of the new address.

  41. DANElewis says:

    Perhaps not a government mandate but they should be required to warn you, not like it is hard to do especially if you just go through something like G-Mail.

    It would be simple just make getting any web based Email and add a forwarding system from your old email once you drop their service