FCC asked to mandate 'e-mail address portability'

AOL incident sparks a demand for mandatory e-mail address portability regulations, similar to how telephone number portability regulations work. Here's why it's a remarkably silly idea.

The Federal Communications Commission is being asked to do a remarkably silly thing: create mandatory "e-mail address portability."

The idea is that because the U.S. Post Office offers to forward physical mail, and because FCC rules require telephone service providers to offer number portability, the same principle should be extended to e-mail accounts.

Here are some excerpts from the petition to the FCC asking for an immediate rulemaking:

In today's world, many individuals and businesses depend just as heavily on their e-mail addresses as on their phone numbers as public points of contact with the larger world. One's e-mail address is a key component of the small matrix of characteristics which forms our public identity: one's name, one's address, one's phone number, and one's e-mail address. This is how the world knows who we are and how to contact us. E-mail addresses are now customarily included on letterheads, resumes and Web sites. The loss of an e-mail address is therefore a crushing blow to any business since not only does all the collateral material have to be discarded, but all the good will that has been generated over the years with that address can be lost in a second if the address is terminated.

The solution to this problem is clear: require ISPs to port e-mail traffic to new e-mail addresses designated by customers. There is no technical reason at all why an e-mail sent to "customer@aol.com" could not be automatically forwarded by AOL to "customer'snewaddress@yahoo.com." This would require none of the technical re-tooling which LNP entailed and could be implemented almost immediately. This simple measure would provide the American public--both consumers and the business community--with the basic confidence that their personal or business identity cannot be destroyed at the whim of their ISP.

The petition was filed by Gail Mortenson, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who had a run-in with AOL customer service when she tried to stop paying monthly service charges (some AOL services like e-mail are now free). Mortenson says her AOL account was unceremoniously closed after she disclosed to AOL customer service that her son had been a minor when he opened it.

Now, I admit that AOL was being unreasonable, but that doesn't mean the FCC needs to get involved. So just why is Mortenson's proposal silly? Let me count the ways:

1. If you're running any kind of business, even a freelance writing business, it's naive to use an AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo e-mail address. This will be your online identity for the foreseeable future, and you don't know if those companies will be around (or if you'll like their e-mail clients or annual fees) a decade from now. Buy your own domain name for around $10 a year instead.

2. E-mail is not the telephone system. The way e-mail forwarding works is for the message to be received by address1@aol.com, which AOL's mail transport agent forwards to address2@yahoo.com. If the customer switches accounts a second time, the message would be forwarded from AOL to Yahoo and on again to address3@gmail.com. Any message to address1 would bounce through three different e-mail providers--a horrifically inefficient delivery route. It also introduces more ways for delivery to fail; if even one e-mail provider in the chain is having network difficulties, email to address1 won't get through.

3. E-mail is free. Let's keep it that way. By that I mean companies like Yahoo and Microsoft offer us no-cost e-mail services in exchange for sending us ads. If they're forced by FCC edict to be a free e-mail forwarding service and they can't make any money at it, they may be less likely to offer free e-mail (or generous mailbox sizes) in the first place.

4. Domain names are portable but e-mail addresses are not. Internet engineers refer to the "protocol stack," and a similar concept applies to policy matters too. If you own a domain name and don't like your registrar or hosting provider, you can take your business elsewhere in a highly competitive market. E-mail addresses are the wrong level of the policy stack to target.

5. The FCC probably does not have the authority to do this. If the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit wouldn't let the FCC get away with mandating the broadcast flag, why would it let the FCC get away with mandating the even more dubious requirement of e-mail portability?

6. E-mail portability already exists in some forms. Gmail offers e-mail forwarding. So does Pobox.com, for $20 a year. There's nothing stopping other services from using e-mail forwarding (perhaps for a year after a customer closes his account) to differentiate themselves from their rivals. Or from coming up with Internetwide standards if there's sufficient customer demand.

7. There's no market failure. Not only is pre-emptive regulation rarely wise, but it's extra double-plus unwise when there's no market failure, a term some economists use to describe when the free market is inefficient because of, say, imperfect competition. Buying your own domain name is a counterpoint to any alleged market failure. Besides, getting the FCC involved is much more likely to lead to what's known as a government failure.

I have no inside knowledge about whether the FCC will take Mortenson seriously enough to start a formal proceeding. But stranger things have happened in Washington, and sometimes shining a bright light on silly proposals is the best way to ensure they quietly expire in the dark.

 

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