The Great Mail Robbery

Even with the Royal Mail completely sold off into private ownership, traditional post has more than just the Sovereign’s cachet. It remains a criminal offence (under the Postal Services Act 2000) to tamper with or delay the Queen’s postal service, even when the post in question is a few pages of gossip scrawled by Aunt Mildred to her pal in Kilmarnock.

Email, we are told, is an inherently unreliable service.

Given the number of businesses and other organisations that depend on email, that could be alarming, although those businesses also rely on banking that has shown itself to be less reliable than a carrier pigeon in a tornado. Just as most businesses can tell you of banking balls-ups, so most recall email and other Internet service failures that have cost them substantial sales.

For as long as service providers and regulators treat email as an unreliable service, that is exactly what we get.

Over the summer of 2009, users of ZetNet were plagued by problems attributed to “the process of moving your mail to our new email platform”. On sites such as http://www.ISPreview.co.uk users reported lost incoming mail, undelivered outgoing mail, frequent failure to connect to ZetNet’s mail servers, and more.

ZetNet entered administration on 16 July 2009, putting owner Breathe Internet – itself no stranger to bankruptcy – into difficulties, culminating in a management buyout. I suspect that there have been other troubles since, given that Breathe Internet is currently operated by a company calling itself Breathe Internet 2014.

This left Spider Networks with a lot of unsettled bills for the email services it had provided to Breathe (excluding ZetNet). Next Breathe’s other ISP, Fast4, developed email problems, for which Spider offered to step in and maintain access to old emails and other vital data. Unfortunately Breathe’s remaining customers reported that they were unable to access Spider’s services when connected through Breathe’s servers, forcing them to use another ISP when they needed to read email from before 18 July 2009, the date on which Breathe switched services from Spider.

Meanwhile attempts to goad OFCOM, the regulator, into action were proving fruitless. All its website had to say about Breathe Internet was that it had an approved Code of Practice, although presumably that did not mitigate consequences to the user of its recent email shenanigans. You can read Breathe’s current Code of Practice, proudly claimed to meet Ofcom’s guidelines for the purposes of section 52 of the Communications Act 2003, here.

If a code of practice fails to protect the integrity of email and other valuable data, then it fails to protect the user in any meaningful way.

In fact if you take the trouble to wade through the 610 pages that make up the Communications Act 2003 Chapter 21, the statutory basis for OFCOM, you will discover that email and other Internet services are not mentioned once. Said Act seems big on codes of practice, procedures, approvals, and other inconsequentials, but sadly lacking when it comes to laying down standards of service.

The long and short of it is that the email services that we pay for, often handsomely, are unprotected. A provider can lose our email, bounce incoming email, cut off access altogether, and your only recourse is to litigate against them. Given a deafening silence on contractually agreed levels of performance for their email services, as consumers or customers we then seem to have little chance of success.

There are even huge organisations that configure their mail servers so that they do not bounce incoming email that they fail to deliver, never informing outsiders of that failure, grossly flouting the international standard for email, RFC 2821 or its predecessor RFC 821.

As the Royal Mail steadily declines, faxing fades, and pigeons are put out to grass, email needs to be turned into a robust service, with accountability and standards. How about it, OFCOM?

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 25 issue 19, 2009. OFCOM did not respond, nor has there been any proposal to protect consumers or businesses any better. Perhaps the emails got lost?