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No False-Starts, Do-Overs, or Mulligans for Email

Neil Schwartzman

Josh Baer, former VP of Datran Media and current CEO of OtherInBox has been floating an idea at the DMA's Email Experience Council and a few other places, and recently got some traction in Ken Magill's Magill Report. What Josh is proposing is to create the technical means by which a Sender can decide when email 'expires' and is automatically removed from a recipient's inbox, either by deletion, or perhaps archiving (in the case of Gmail). This would supposedly help the end-user, by removing marketing offers that are no longer available.

Why this Idea Shouldn't Happen

Email users' rights trump everything. We get to decide what comes into our inbox, and what doesn't. Just as fundamentally, we get to decide what is removed from the inbox, too. I no more want a marketer to decide for me to remove email they have sent, than I do deciding to add me to their list without permission.

Adding the 'expires' header, and having an email provider complicitly remove an email from my inbox borders on 1984-like creepy. I want to know what has been sent to me, and not have Big Brother, or Big Business, remove stuff they decide is no longer relevant. Perhaps my goal in life is to create a complete archive of every Groupon offer ever sent to me — this would put an end to my dreams.

Beyond users' rights, this scheme will confound receiving systems' and reputation systems' ability to determine the complaint rate of a given email campaign, which will be quite dynamic under this plan.

Email providers use complaint rates (and bounces, and myriad other data-points) during a campaign to determine if they should continue accepting email (some campaigns can take hours to complete their run, depending upon the size). If I send 10,000,000 emails over the course of a couple of hours, and set half of them to expire in say, 3 hours, the receiving system sees leading-edge complaints are taken with a number eventually reaching 10MM as the denominator, and so the actual complaint percentage may be kept artificially small, at the end of the day.

Why This Idea (Probably) Won't Happen

Some folks are dismissing this out-of-hand, saying it would "never" get traction at any of the big receivers, like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo! But I'm not entirely sold on that argument. It seems to me that when marketing, sales and a receiver come into close contact, it would be natural to treat a source of revenue with kid gloves, and as receiver revenues ebb, there may be a temptation to consider an idea such as this one with more gravitas than it merits. One need only look at Goodmail's long-term attempts at revenue sharing with Receivers like AOL, Yahoo! And Comcast (apparently the revenue was never more than a trickle, if anything) to realize not everything is always rosy in that regard. Marketer may hold disproportionate sway in an uncertain email provider economy.

That aside, this is asking a lot of the email providers in terms of infrastructure change on behalf of a small slice of the area of their concern. Marketing email accounts for a reported 10% of the legitimate email load (in other words, everything a typical user gets that isn't spam, rejected at the router, or by other filtering means).

As an official of a very large American ISP said to a group of marketers at a conference some years ago, "On my list of 10 things to do today, you are number 11".

There would have to be a compelling groundswell of user desire and need for this idea to be considered, and I don't see that happening, particularly at this point in time. There is a very large technical need to implement domain — based reputation systems looming, and the deployment of DKIM on inbound and outbound email is a pressing concern for both Senders and email providers. Their technical docket is very full, and will be for the foreseeable future as IPv6 deployment, the replacement for depleted IPv4 IP addresses pushes this agenda ever-higher.

Expiring email is a distraction that benefits only a few people in the community, and offers a tempting manner to game reputation systems and complaint rates. And, it ignores the right of end-users to determine what shows up, and stays, in our inboxes.

By Neil Schwartzman, Executive Director, The Coalition Against unsolicited Commercial Email - CAUCE
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Share your comments

Control is the issue The Famous Brett Watson  –  Mar 17, 2011 4:04 AM PDT

If I were designing email from scratch, I would include an "expires" field in the message metadata to indicate a time at which the sender claims the message ceases to be relevant. It's an eminently sensible idea, particularly if you can persuade people to use it (an education/interface issue). Outlook/Exchange has such a feature, although the execution of the idea is somewhat lacking, and I never see it used in actual practice. A great deal of email, especially in the corporate environment, is just stuff like "I'm going to be in late today", which ceases to be relevant not long after it's sent. It would be great to have an option to bulk-delete or archive expired mail, particularly in cases where you've neglected your email for a while.

The question is one of control. So long as the user is in control of how this information is actually used, it's a good thing. If it's just another attribute, like "flagged" or "unread", then you can specify a rule for handling it. As a Gmail user, I'd want to have a "select expired" option, and a means to apply highlighting (well, lowlighting, actually) to expired messages.

Don't fall into the trap of being opposed to a feature just because it would be bad if the bad guys had control of it.

No just bad guys Neil Schwartzman  –  Mar 17, 2011 4:14 AM PDT

I agree, Brett, but you must face the fact that you & I do not represent the typical email user, so setting flags, writing rules, and so on are a step further than the vast majority goes. Moreover, the bottom line of this being used to game reputation systems remains.

While you may be thinking worse bad guys than I am, I can tell you definitively that in my role at an email reputation company that ended recently, I saw a sufficient number of cases of quasi-legitimate people trying such schemes; for example, setting up dummy accounts at freemail systems, then pumping a ton of email into them, then sending the actual campaign. This wasn't pervasive, we (and the freemailers) were (and are) on the lookout for such things, but it is, at best, sleazy, and of concern enough that to add the additional temptation of setting up very short expires on a large number of emails so that people can't complain, so you can spam, would be untenable, from a reputation operational standpoint.

You're still thinking "too much sender control" The Famous Brett Watson  –  Mar 17, 2011 6:45 AM PDT

So long as it's just an advisory header in the email, the recipient's Mail User Agent must be part of the conspiracy before it can be used against the recipient's interests. Granted, a lot of the MUA role is played by third party webmail providers, but they could already conspire with spammersMarketing Professionals to subvert the system if they wanted to (e.g. by whitelisting).

If the "expires" header were to exist, and if the recommended MUA behaviour for expired mail were to be "visually de-emphasise the item in the mailbox view" (e.g. grey text instead of black), I wouldn't see the harm. Nothing about this prevents anyone from complaining about spam, except to the extent that they decide to automate the deletion of expired mail, as is their prerogative. I think it would help people prioritise their email, though.

That's the point Neil Schwartzman  –  Mar 17, 2011 6:49 AM PDT

The header would have the most impact at Freemailers. And no, despite dark hints to the contrary, there is little evidence of conspiring with marketers. Freemailers for the most part outsource their whitelisting to Return Path, who do a good job of keeping them in line.

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