NaN-tic Jun 15, 2022
While nobody can deny the positive contribution of communication technologies to a more ecological lifestyle, for example living with less waste of paper, less mobility, more sharing of ideas, more working teams globally located, etc. (We already have explored how big data management and the internet help environmental sustainability in "Big data and sustainability: citizen efficiency in the cloud".) At the same time, nobody can ignore that these technologies also produce their own carbon footprint because they need large data centers and energy to function.
More or less, the majority of us have adopted measures to take care of the environment and reduce our footprint on the Earth as citizens. But what about the emails we send and receive every day?
We can delete all the unnecessary emails like the reception confirmations or thank you emails. Also, we can delete spam and all commercial emails that become obsolete. But, being realistic, we haven't time for that, and anyway, are we who have to do this work? Or are the data centres and senders of mass emails who should do it?
Well then, here we come to introduce you to an initiative that aims exactly this mission, to automatically delete the commercial emails that become obsolete in our mailboxes and stand forever on servers, it's the Email Expiration Date initiative. For this, we have interviewed Jonathan Loriaux, CEO and Founder of Badsender, and one of the driving forces of the Email Expiration Date initiative. But first, some "scary" data.
About 300 billion emails are sent every day. A large portion of these emails is spam that is directly quarantined in the spam box or the recipient immediately deletes. A small portion is personal or transactional emails. Finally, all the rest are commercial emails that stand forever in the recipient's mailboxes even though they become totally obsolete soon after their reception.
Spam emails are mostly deleted automatically by email servers and each one produces 0.3gr of CO2 emissions. A personal or transactional email, without any attached file, outputs 1gr of CO2, while an email with an attached file of 1Mb emits up to 19gr of carbon, and if this email is stored, archived, or forwarded, its footprint can rise up to 50gr of CO2.
Taking all of the above data into account, the carbon footprint of daily email traffic could range from 300 tons of carbon to 3,000 tons or even 6,000 tons of carbon. An amount that increases day by day by adding the emails stored in the data centers.
You can find more data about the cost of storing all these emails here, the Email Expiration Date argumentation. And if you are more interested in how it’s possible to «auto-magically» delete expired emails, you can read the proposals here.
The goal is not to have an expiration date in every email. It's obvious that when you're communicating with your friends or family, you don't want the messages to disappear. It's probably the same for purchase confirmation emails or messages from your bank.
The idea is that the expiration date is only present on emails that become obsolete. This is the case for most commercial and promotional emails.
On the other hand, the recipient should remain in control of his email. It is unlikely that email providers will do fully automatic cleaning. The user's consent will have to be requested anyway and he should be able to disable automatic deletion on certain messages or even on certain senders.
Finally, there are already technical protections in place so that a hacker cannot modify the content of an email or its technical headers. With DKIM for example (which has become widely used), it is possible to protect the "Expires:" field so that no one can change the date.
There are several challenges in this project. The first one is that we need to move several actors at the same time, mainly the ESPs and the MBPs. The ESPs need to modify their tools to allow companies to configure their expiration dates.
On their side, MBPs must also change their solutions in order to build the cleaning mechanics.
And as with any change in technology, the various players have to move at the same time to make the technology a reality. We are exactly in this phase. The standard is being validated, everyone is watching the project, and some ESPs and MBPs are implementing expiration dates.
On the side of the email senders, there is a real expectation. If the technology was ready in their ESPs, they would use it. On the other hand, there is a real cultural difference between Europe and the US on the environmental issue. Europeans are much more advanced and want to move quickly. You can feel it in all our discussions with advertisers.
There are several ways to contribute to the project.
Contribute technically by participating in the thinking around the standard we are building. This is a part that is almost complete, we are still waiting for some feedback to make sure the proposal is as robust as possible.
Participate in the thinking about use cases. There is already a working group that is thinking on the advertiser side about best practices for implementing expiration dates: on which types of emails, how do I want to see the option in the tools, what are the expiration times, ... On the citizen side, it would be interesting to have the same approach toward ESPs. Would I accept that my emails are automatically cleaned without my intervention? If not, how would I want this to be managed in my webmail interface?
Finally, the best way to participate in the project today is to talk about it, spread the word, to generate debate. For this project to become a reality and for it to be effective, we need to reach a critical mass. On the side of the advertisers, on the side of the ESPs and on the side of the MBPs. And talking about the project is something everyone can do.
I think it makes much less sense, at least for ecological reasons. In the 300 billion emails sent every day, only a very small proportion are emails sent by individuals to other individuals. Most of them are mass emails, from spammers, and also from legitimate companies.
But in the end, why not. These are features that already exist in some email solutions, for example, to allow journalists to erase their tracks when working in hostile areas.
For social networks, we must anyway try to constantly think about the idea of eco-design when we develop new technologies. An expiration date may help, but it's certainly not the only way.