We live in weird times. The guys in the tinfoil hats were right for once and we really do need to think twice before we upload something important and personal to a data provider. That entity can use or be forced by complex local laws to expose that data to a third party we don’t even know it exists or don’t want to be snooping in our naughty bits.
One of the building blocks of modern communication is e-mail (I hope no one is longer buying that IM on Facebook will kill e-mail), but before I dive into the present situation, a little nostalgic trip is advised.
Faster than the post office
I recently managed to find a printed confirmation of registration for a free e-mail account at one of Poland’s bigger providers. This truly brings memories of dial-up Internet access, when after a while of waiting you could read a message in glorious 8 or 16 bit color graphics on a screen with resolution not bigger that today’s mobile devices. To read all those fine pieces of modern writing, you used the wonderful Outlook Express, which had more holes than a dude who ended up on the wrong side of a nail-gun. I actually remember deleting a virus that had attached itself to an e-mail and got distributed to all contacts of a buddy of mine (that’s how we knew someone liked us! They had you in their address book! Not some social nonsense! <grumblegrumble/>).
Back then we used the POP3 protocol, not the fancy shmancy IMAP today’s spoiled kids are used to. With their mobile devices and stuff <grumblegrumble/>. The only major choice we had was weather or not allow the client to leave the mail on the server for backup purposes. Actually you had to do this, if you had more than one computer, so you could download the second time. Sync? What’s that?
It was slow, but a ton faster than actually going to the post office, which in Poland in the 90” meant horribly long lines and really unpleasant personnel. This is still the case but since lots of senior people died already or their grandchildren pay the bills electronically the lines got shorter. And the post office is undergoing an (extremely late) overhaul, but I digress.
I just wanna write stuff, ‘kay?
The choice with e-mail for most people boils down to: either one of the big providers (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo) or the smaller, local ones (in Poland those are Onet, wp.pl, Interia, o2). “Tlen” or “oxygen” sends you more spam (the one you sadly agreed to in the TOS) with more sexual innuendos any healthy person can handle. I mean it: sign up for an o2.pl account and you don’t need HBO. And if you don’t use an e-mail client you’ll have to hacksaw your way through a ton of naughty stuff and gossip to get to the actual login form. Totally not the candidate for a kids first e-mail account provider.
Interia shouldn’t even be considered, since they (and it was proven, although I can’t find the link) transmit the senders IP address with messages. Yup, they don’t freaking care about such nonsense like security and don’t take the extra 5 minutes to cut out the IP from messages. Holy meatballs of fire, that’s dumb. No one sane should use Interia (or poczta.fm, that’s the same thing).
Wirtualna Polska was my first mailbox provider and I was rather happy with it for a long time. When I was still actively using it I used to get lots of advertisements with the tag WP.pl and, this is the annoying part, I couldn’t filter them out! That was WP’s way of saying “you greed to the TOS, suck it!”. Also they started to alternate between variations of the tag, like: WP.pl, /WP.pl, / WP.pl, wp.pl etc. I can safely bet this was to confuse MUAs which were the best weapon against this rubbish. Of course noting beats server side filtering, especially today, when IMAP is the default for most people.
I think that out of all those, Onet.pl was the least intrusive (at least that’s my impression from 10+ years ago, don’t quote me on this when talking about Onet in its current state). And the reason why the details are fuzzy, is probably because I started using Gmail.
Enter the G-Man
I actually was one of the early adopters of Gmail – when you needed invitations to participate. I got one from a buddy of mine and it all started. Huge attachments, a huge mailbox (I didn’t feel it then, I relied much less on e-mail than now) and most importantly: no advertisements in the form of separate e-mails or worse, attached to your mail. Imagine this:
We were all struck by the news of your Fathers passing. We had known him for years and worked together. We’ll do our best to be at the ceremony and walk together to his final resting place. Please let us know about the details.
Regular Joe and Family
Buy tampons wholesale! Killer deals! We can hook you up with a lifetime supply!
Sent according to the Terms Of Service, point #4 “You are a sucker!”
Mind blown? No wonder Gmail ate most of the market: their ads are much less intrusive and people using mail clients won’t even see them.
The problem with “free”
When you get something for free (as in beer), you often don’t appreciate it and are more likely to abuse it (I’m not talking about straight illegal things like SPAMming). If one account is free, then why not have two? Or three? Or a bazillion?
And being young and naive I felt pray to this mistake: I had about a dozen mailboxes. I still have most of them (one is missing, which means it got deleted by me or the provider for not using it [read: not eating ads]). Think Gmail was the silver bullet? Think again: how much Gmail accounts do YOU have? That’s what I thought.
Side note: I actually observed a trend change from making up “cutesy” addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org (“buziaczek” menas “little tiny kiss” – seriously, this exists as an alias for the Onet mailing system) to more professional like email@example.com. Many people just have two mailboxes: one for informal stuff and the other for more official communications.
So: not only I had lots of different mailboxes, some of which were probably leaking data but also lots of stuff was going through the googly eyes’ perimeter. What a headache! Is there any place for refuge from this mess?