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1/19/2007
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The Problems With E-Mail

As e-mails multiply, so do the problems, from the unabated increases in spam to increasing scrutiny by regulators.

E-mail matters--ask Eric Govan. Last year Govan, a public relations manager with the Golden State Warriors basketball team, inadvertently sent a joke e-mail with the subject line "Ghetto Prom" to his list of sportswriters and other media contacts across the country. Shortly after, team president Robert Rowell sent out his own e-mail, according to The Associated Press, saying, "It came to my attention moments ago that one of our employees had inadvertently sent out an e-mail that was in extreme poor taste and completely unprofessional. ... The employee responsible for sending this e-mail has been dealt with in an appropriate manner." Translation: canned.

A business user in the United States sends and receives, on average, 171 e-mails a day, and that volume is expected to double by 2010, according to the Radicati Group, a research firm. As e-mail proliferates, so does the number of ways for it to be misused and mismanaged. Out-of-control e-mail isn't only a cost burden and a time suck; it's also a legal and regula- tory liability.

Bad Habits
31% of employees say their company doesn't publish official e-mail use policies
30% regularly or sometimes send corporate e-mail from a personal account
25% regularly forward corporate e-mail to a personal account
6% say they've sent company information to someone they shouldn't have
Data: Radicati Group survey of 363 respondents with a wide variety of job functions
E-mail foibles can lead to firings, public embarrassments, and, in extreme cases, even criminal charges. In November, Deutsche Bank resigned as an underwriter to Hertz Global Holdings' initial public offering after a Deutsche Bank employee sent e-mail with inside information to some 175 accounts. Last month, the National Association of Securities Dealers cited--and may soon fine--Morgan Stanley for allegedly destroying millions of e-mails it had earlier claimed were lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In another case, former CTO of a wireless telemetry startup, William Dobson, faces up to 15 years in prison for allegedly intercepting e-mails of the CEO and VP of engineering.

A company with 5,000 users can expect 900 unauthorized releases of private information and 150 inappropriate e-mails every day, according to e-mail management provider MessageGate. And that company will store 3.4 terabytes of nonbusiness e-mails a year. Some 6% of users surveyed by Radicati say they've e-mailed confidential company information to someone they shouldn't have, and 42% say they've been subjected to offensive language in an e-mail from a co-worker. Only half of those respondents say their companies publish an e-mail use policy.

Even for those companies that button down their e-mail guidelines and plan for all manner of contingencies, something's bound to go wrong. E-mail goes down for the dumbest of reasons, people who should know better unwittingly send out trade secrets, incoming spam jams gateways, regulations snag the noncompliant. "The one certainty is, there's no certainty," says Mike Rosenfelt, co-founder of e-mail continuity company MessageOne. So in the absence of an out-of-the-box solution, take a few pointers--or just have a good laugh--at the expense of some organizations and individuals who have muddled through e-mail screwups and debacles.

STRANGE-BUT-TRUE DOWNTIME STORIES

E-mail downtime is as unpredictable as termites, goats, and the Grateful Dead. We'll explain in a bit, but suffice it to say you'd better have a backup plan.

When e-mail goes down, collaboration stops and business grinds to a halt. A recent outage at Dow Jones led The Wall Street Journal to write a first-person article about the "snow day" caused by not having e-mail. A 5,000-employee health insurance company in the Midwest estimates it lost $3 million in productivity and business during an eight-hour outage, according to MessageOne, after the data center manager, giving a tour to his family, flipped what he thought was a light switch that turned out to be an ill-placed control for an entire bank of servers.

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E-mail downtime also exposes companies, especially those subject to strict regulations, to legal ramifications. Say the company e-mail goes down and employees turn to their Hotmail or Gmail accounts--if that e-mail ever gets subpoenaed for discovery, it will be hard to find. And should e-mail go down during discovery, archives might not be recoverable quick enough to satisfy regulators.

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