August 2017 - Data Protection & Privacy | Encryption

Emailing – The Good Guys, The Bad Guys and Dysfunctional Relationships - Transcript

Finding the balance between the desire to get your marketing message out and your need to keep your target customers happy can be difficult. Being one of the good guys is important in overcoming the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between email and marketing, according to Vittorio Bertola from Open-Xchange. Vittorio spoke to dotmagazine on the value of open source, the upcoming changes to EU data protection law, and how not to alienate your customers.

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Listen to the 10-minute interview here or download the audio for later


DOT: Vittorio, why is open source so important for emailing? 

BERTOLA: Well, I think that the first most important reason is that the open source matches the nature of email because an email is a federated open standard, and this is really something that is part of the original Internet architecture. But it’s not the way that the newest communication systems over the Internet are working, because if you take instant messaging systems, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or any other of these kind, most of them – not all but almost all of them – are not open standards. They are just a centralized system by a single provider. And so you can just use the application by the owner of the system and that’s it. While with email, everyone can set up their email server and start communicating with anyone else and order services from everyone else. 

And so this really has some consequences. First of all, it has consequences for the user, because it gives you choice. You can choose your provider, or you can change it if you don’t trust your provider anymore, or if it doesn’t work. You get transparency, so you can actually check what’s happening – and this is both because of the standard and because of the fact that you can get full open source implementations of the client and server, etc.. So, you can really check what’s happening with your information.

And also, from the business side, the fact that this is an open standard, and that it can be implemented with open source software, allows you to create a market. So that’s why there are so many hundreds, thousands of companies that work at creating email systems, email software, and email services and there are many, many more that provide actual email services to users. So I think that this is really a tight relationship between free software and email, because they are really in the same philosophy in terms of the architecture. 

DOT: So what needs to be done to ensure the privacy of our business and personal communications via email? 

BERTOLA: Well, I’d address this in two phases. First of all it’s the provider that needs to do something – because in most cases users can only check or do something at the client level, but most of the communication on the network is done by the provider. So it really depends on the email provider to ensure that the communication is private and secure. So Internet service providers have to keep the installations up to date, and they have to deploy the newest technologies. We at Open-Xchange are pushing stuff like DNSSEC and DANE, and the latest versions of TLS. And also we are trying to ensure that people use the proper cipher suites, because many of the encryption methods that are commonly used over the Internet and even in email transmission are not up to date anymore – they can be broken easily. And so you really need to change them and use other ones. And of course there’s more. I mean, you could try to use end-to-end encryption if you can, and you could encrypt your storage of your mailbox. 

And then finally, there’s also a commitment that is necessary by email providers not to use email data for marketing, and not to track the users or mine email for marketing information, and so on. So from the user side, in the end, you just have to pick a provider that you trust, that you are confident will do these kind of things, and possibly I think you have to pick it in Europe. I mean, G-mail and the like are great – they give a great service – but they are in a legal and cultural environment where privacy is not really valued. So I think that users get a much better chance of having protection of their privacy and information if they pick European services. 

DOT: What do you see as the future of emailing as a marketing tool? 

BERTOLA: Well, there’s now a history of 20, or 30 years maybe even, of a relationship between email and marketing, and it’s always been quite dysfunctional. It’s not an easy relationship between email and marketing. And the more you go on with this, people become more sensitive, and laws are stricter. I think that people who really want to use email for marketing should be really careful about what they send around – and especially they should send fewer messages but target them very well. 

They should not send messages to people that don’t want them, because it’s useless – you will just piss people off and you will not get anything. There are services where you can register, you get an account for some online services, and you give them your email to get your account. And they start sending you emails – five emails a day. That’s not the way to do it, because people will just get upset and so they will not read them, and they will unsubscribe after three days, or even if they don’t unsubscribe they will just simply stop reading your stuff and hate you. If you really want to use email for marketing, you have to put some value in it. Just send stuff that people want. And if you do that, it can be useful. I mean, if you do it properly it can work, but you should really be careful because marketers tend to send too many emails. 

DOT: So what will the impact of the new privacy legislation at the E.U. level have on the industry here? 

BERTOLA: I think that for the good players – I mean, people who understood these matters – it can only be positive, because the stricter the legislation that you have in terms of privacy, the more trust the users have. So people can be confident that if they pick a European service they are not being tracked. And people really don’t like being tracked online. I mean, initially – up to a couple of years ago – people wouldn’t really mind or notice, but nowadays you meet more and more people that notice. They look for something in Google, and then five minutes later they get advertising for that in Facebook, or by email, or somewhere else. And people really don’t like this. People find this scary. If you can create an environment where this is not happening, people will be more willing to use the Internet and to buy your online services, and to put important, relevant information over the Internet. 

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Of course if you’re a bad player, if you’re actually someone who’s chasing users just to spam them or simply not to have a proper customer relationship, then it may be your problem. It also may be a problem for those service providers that do not invest in security and privacy. If your services are old and you’ve never updated them, and you have obsolete technologies and configurations, then it might be a problem for you. But I think that the only true issue with the new legislation – I don’t think it’s a problem, I think it’s a necessary step, but still it will have a significant impact – is the change that there will be in terms of advertising – especially if the latest amendments go ahead. If, in the end, let’s say targeted advertising is prohibited except for users that really want it and so give explicit consent, this will bring possibly too little revenue for free services that are funded by advertising. But I think in the end that this will also facilitate the emerging of new compensation models. We think anyway that the business model just based on advertising and lots of advertising – it’s not working, people don’t like it, and in the long term is not sustainable. If we can work to have better, less intrusive advertising, and also maybe to have alternative ways for users to pay something for services they like, I think this is much better than just going on with all this targeted tracking advertising. 

DOT: Vittorio, finally, how do you see that email is changing? What do you think our experience of email will be like in another three to five years? 

BERTOLA: Well, I think that the email is here to stay. I mean, often you read that email is going away, that the people who provide email will be out of business. I definitely don’t think so. I think that email is here to stay for the most formal online communication mechanism. The important stuff. If you have to get a new contract, if you have to buy your flight tickets, or hotel bookings, if you have to get your health information, maybe results from examinations, I think this will still go via email. 

It may may be that less important stuff – chats and so on – will go by instant messaging, but I think email will be there. To a certain extent, the email is fine like this, in the sense that it must be something which you can easily archive, and it’s backed up, you don’t lose it, you know it’s there, and you can look into it. 

But then, at the same time, I think that there will be some innovations – for example, bridging the gap between email and instant messaging. So, some ways to have a more direct communication also still using email. I think they will be good. And also I think that the additional services, such as search – and maybe easier ways to find stuff that you have in your email, maybe emails from 10 or 15 years ago – these could be new interesting services. But in the end, I think that still email’s such a basic, fundamental service for the Internet that it will stay like it is and people will still like it. 

Read Vittorio Bertola’s article on Bringing Order To The Digital Wild West From The Bottom Up in the March 2017 issue of dotmagazine.

Vittorio Bertola is Research & Innovation Engineer at Open-Xchange, a global leader in services and free software for the Internet's email and DNS infrastructure, where he takes care of research and innovation activities, leading projects to invent and develop new products; he is also responsible for the company's policy activities. Previously, he worked as a freelance consultant, as a website developer and as partner, founder or CTO in several Internet start-ups in Italy. He is also a digital rights activist, dealing with Internet policy at the national and international level for the last twenty years.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Industry Insights published by dotmagazine are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the publisher, eco – Association of the Internet Industry