Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Fail Mail

Flashback: Looking back to the introduction of free webmail, many of the same issues still still plague Gmail and Hotmail today, as discussed by Elizabeth Walton in The Weekend Australian, from the way it was in the beginning…

Webmail is said to be the ultimate liberator. It’s free. And so are those who use it; free from having to be at a dedicated workstation, free from having to lug floppy and zip disks around and free from attaching peripherals to other people’s computer. They just forward the files over the net and let cyberspace carry the load.

Overseas destinations prove no barrier. Webmail messages can be checked from anywhere with internet access – just dial up and download from the virtual server. It’s that simple.

But just how reliable is this electronic domain? Is trusting webmail to take good care of vital information becoming a risky business?

The latest research conducted by internet analysis group www.consult indicates that one in two Australian Internet users is already accessing webmail on a regular basis. The company’s principal, Ramin Marzbani, says they’re mostly using Microsoft’s hotmail. Many popular search sites such as Yahoo!, Netscape and AltaVista also offer webmail products.

Some offer limited functions, such as composing and sending mail. Others offer a handy extras, such as an online spell checkers and address books – even the facility to check email accounts on other servers. They all offer portability and anonymity, free of charge.

But there are no guarantees. When visiting Australia last month, Andy Howells, head of the UK based design group InterSoftware, reported that his staff of several hundred can no longer rely on webmail. The system is so choked up he says, that only one in three messages is getting through.

Establishing webmail is easy. Use the search term “webmail”, choose a service, create a user name and password, and you’re done. Except for ticking the verification disclaimer where you state you are the person you claim to be. Authenticating the verification is impossible. This verification problem raises obvious concerns about impersonation. Anyone can walk into an internet cafe, log on to a webmail site and create a cyber presence. But as Peter Coroneous, head of the Internet Industry Association explains, it’s a question of whether you blame the technology or the individual.

“If I’m able to establish a presence as spammer@yahoo.com, and I then go and flame thousands of people with defamatory material, then it becomes a serious law-enforcement issue. In the end it’s a balancing act between the convenience of millions of people worldwide who want the freedom of webmail, versus the scope for abuse.”

Fraud is not an internet issue, it’s a people issue. It can happen with webmail just as easily as with snail mail. These security issues won’t be resolved until there is a universally accepted means of verifying a user’s ID before issuing a digital signature, which acts as an online seal.

It’s better, says Coroneous, to choose an e-mail service provider that offers alternative ways of accessing mail in the first place, rather than take risks in the insecure environment of free webmail. Larger ISPs, specifically Bigpond and Ozemail, offer “pots” across the country, so that no matter where you are, your mail can be accessed for the cost of a local call.

But that assumes the emailer will travel with a notebook computer that can easily be configured to the local dial-in protocol. If the user isn’t too sure-footed without the safety harness of the inhouse IT department, then this could be a rather frustrating venture. If planning to step offshore, it’s no use at all. Better perhaps to stick to webmail, where the only thing to remember is website address for logging in, the user name and password, no matter where you’re attempting to access from.

The only question is whether you can rely on accessing terminals that will allow casual users to insert diskettes. Alternatively, you can temporarily forward your primary email account to webmail, by setting up a “.forward” on the server. Again, that’s fine for those with a well rounded inner-geek, not so great for the rest of us.

Ozemail has taken remote mail a step further, introducing an international mail-roaming system with reciprocal agreements between ISPs. The iPass network extends to 750 cities, and will eventually expand to cover the globe. You need to download and change the computer settings before you leave the country, so if there’s a possibility of spontaneous travel, forget it. Ozemail’s alternative is MyMail (mymail.com.au), a browser interface that allows users to browse their mail from anywhere on the web, so long as their account is held with one of the ISPs that Ozemail holds a reciprocal arrangement with.

Add to the list of hassles all the usual email nightmares, such as how can you trust that the webmail service provider isn’t reading your messages; why did the text look a little different from the way it was sent? Then there’s the total internet hell experience – getting the wrong person’s email. It happens all too frequently. And the more “hands” the mail switches through, the higher the potential for delivery errors.

Rosanne Bersten, spokeswoman for the Australian Consumers Association, says it’s really a case of let the buyer beware. In the case of the free services, that translates into not expecting anything from something you haven’t paid for.

As far as Ozemail is concerned, the issues will soon dissolve. Spokesman Michael Ward says: “Eventually there will be an integrated personal address system, with voicemail and email, and an independent naming architecture. Your contact point might be something like MichaelWard@Australia, because we will move beyond a physical to a literal presentation of a fixed point in cyberspace. But for time being, it’s important for people to observe some precautions.”

Posted in Uncategorized by admin on February 20th, 2011 at 12:03 am.

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