July 2, 2004

Email in Court

A federal appeals court decision handed down on June 29 has the potential to change the way ISPs monitor email – but how many Americans will hear about it? And how many will understand its implications?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled that email providers can store and read individual emails. That means whatever you write or receive via email – office gossip, Amazon.com receipt, or secret marketing plan – is potential reading material for the companies who transmit those communications. Privacy advocates want email to be treated like the telephone or like snail mail, but Tuesday’s ruling chilled that hope.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project does not take a position on the fairness of the decision, but instead offers the following perspective: Very few Americans are aware of this debate.

In February 2001, a Pew Internet Project survey asked 2,096 adults to answer the following question: “How much, if at all, have you heard about a computer system known as ‘Carnivore’, which allows the FBI to intercept email messages sent or received by people suspected of criminal activities. Have you heard a lot, a little, or nothing at all about Carnivore?” Fully 77% of Americans had heard nothing at all, despite numerous stories in newspapers and magazines and general alarm among privacy advocates. Some observers might say that’s just fine – why should the average American worry about the details of wiretapping law? And who has time to read the fine print of privacy policies for email providers, most of which promise not to snoop?

But are Internet users making informed decisions about email when most are not even aware that the debate is raging on without them?