Sunday, January 14, 2007

E-mail forwards are evil!

I don't know about Indian laws, but when John Lott sued Steve Levitt (the Freakonomics guy) for defamation, a forwarded e-mail from Levitt to a colleague was one of the issues:

Levitt complained in an e-mail to a colleague that "for $15,000 he was able to buy an issue and put in only work that supported him." (Lott's lawsuit also targets that e-mail as false and defamatory — yes, you can be sued for a statement made in an e-mail to a single person.) [Link]

Surprisingly, the judge hearing this case has dismissed all the charges against Levitt except one. Yes, the forwarded e-mail is still alive! As Tim Lambert notes:

Lott takes some solace in the fact that his claim that Levitt defamed in an email wasn't thrown out, but it's hard to see what damage Lott can demonstrate from an email to one person who doesn't seem to have believed it (since he forwarded it to Lott).

Can something that's said in a private conversation be used against you? Are e-mail messages a private conversation? Even if they don't have the 'privacy and confidentiality' notices that we find in e-mails from corporations?

My second example is slightly different. Juan Cole (an expert on the Middle-East at the University of Michigan, and author of an influential blog Informed Comment) was a part of a policy-oriented mailing list that had an explicit "no forward" rule. Yet, one of his e-mails to this group was leaked, and used later in a vicious attack against him. At that time, Cole had this to say:

Christopher Hitchens owes me a big apology.

I belong to a private email discussion group called Gulf2000. It has academics, journalists and policy makers on it. It has a strict rule that messages appearing there will not be forwarded off the list. It is run, edited and moderated by former National Security Council staffer for Carter and Reagan, Gary Sick, now a political scientist at Columbia University. The "no-forwarding" rule is his, and is intended to allow the participants to converse about controversial matters without worrying about being in trouble. Also, in an informal email discussion, ideas evolve, you make mistakes and they get corrected, etc. It is a rough, rough draft.

* * *

Both these examples are from professional settings, where "Don't Forward" is a good policy to follow.

But, even among friends, e-mails are not like conversations in one important way: they possess the permanence of the written word, and it can really hurt you. I have been hurt by indiscriminate forwarding of my e-mail; while the damage wasn't as bad as getting sued, it was still very real. Result: I learned my lesson, and I make sure that my e-mails to these persons are bland, business-like and utterly boring!

If you don't want your friends and associates to treat you this way, use "Don't Forward" as the default rule, and choose wisely when you violate it. Look at it this way: if they wanted their messages to become public, they would have written it on their blogs!


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    On the other hand, email has one advantage over conversation -- it doesn't get distorted (except via malice), and if you store a copy of all your mail (incoming and outgoing) you can correct any distortions. With conversations the "indiscriminate forwarding" of remarks is always accompanied by mutations, generally deleterious, in the remarks.

  2. Anonymous said...

    I am not sure what you are referring to when you link to the claim that "the judge hearing this case has dismissed all the charges against Levitt except one." I think that there were only two charges and one of those two was dismissed.

  3. Abi said...

    Rahul: You do have a valid point about the usefulness of e-mail as documentary evidence.

    Anon: I am not all that conversant with the details of the Lott-Levitt case. All I wanted to say was that the lone contentious issue is the private e-mail; everything else has been thrown out. I wasn't aware that 'everything else' was just one other charge! Sorry for the confusion.