Email doesn’t disappear

More and more often we are seeing stories like this one from Facebook about who has control over your messages on closed platforms.

I keep saying in response: email is your electronic memory. Your email is your copy of a conversation. Nobody, from the lowliest spammer to the grand exulted CEO of a massive company, can remove or change the content of an email message they have sent to you.

At first glance, Facebook Messenger seems to work the same way. You can delete your copy of any message in a conversation, but the other parties keep their unchanged copy. However, it turns out that insiders with privileged access can change history for somebody else, creating an effect similar to gaslighting where you can no longer confirm your recollection of what was once said.

In short, centralised social networks are not a safe repository for your electronic memory. They can change their policies and retroactively change messages underneath you.

With email, it’s all based on open standards, and you can choose a provider you trust to retain messages for you.

FastMail is a provider you can trust

We have built our business on a very simple proposition: we proudly charge money in exchange for providing a service. This means our loyalties are not split. We exist to serve your needs.

Our top three values are all about exactly this. You are our customer, your data belongs to you, we are good stewards of your data.

The right to remember, and the right to forget

We provide tools to allow you to implement rules around retention (for example, you can have your Trash folder automatically purge messages after 30 days), but we don’t ever remove messages without your consent and intent.

If you do delete messages, we don’t destroy them immediately, because our experience has shown that people make mistakes. We allow a window of between one and two weeks in which deleted messages can be recovered (see technical notes at the end of this post for exact details).

Since 2010, our self-service tool has allowed you to restore those recently deleted messages. We don’t charge using this service, it’s part of making sure that decisions about your data are made by you, and helping you recover gracefully from mistakes.

Because we only scan message content to build the indexes that power our great search tools and (on delivery) for spam protection – once messages are deleted, they’re really gone. You have the right to forget emails you don’t want to keep.

You’re in control

Thanks as always to our customers who choose what to remember, and what to forget. It’s your email, and you are in control of its lifecycle. Our role is to provide the tools to implement your will.

Nobody else decides how long you keep your email for, and nobody can take back a message they’ve sent you. Your email, your memory, your choice.

An Update

Since I started drafting this article, Facebook have doubled down on the unsend feature, saying that they will make it possible for anybody to remove past messages.

While it’s definitely more equitable, I still don’t think this is a good idea. People will work around it by screenshotting conversations, and it just makes the platform more wasteful of everybody’s time and effort. Plus it’s much easier to fake a screenshot than to fake up a live Facebook Messenger interface while scrolling back to show messages.

There are really a lot of bad things about unreliable messaging systems, which is exactly what Wired has to say about this rushed and poorly thought-out feature. Stick with email for important communications.

Technical notes:

We currently purge messages every Sunday when the server load is lowest – and only messages which were deleted over a week ago. Therefore the exact calculation for message retention is one week plus the time until the next Sunday plus however long it takes the server to get to your mailbox as it scans through all the mailboxes containing purged messages. Deleting files is surprisingly expensive on most filesystems, which is why we save it until the servers are least busy.

We also have backups, which may retain deleted messages for longer based on repack schedules, but which can’t be automatically restored with messages that were deleted longer than two weeks ago.

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