Essays on Technology and Culture

Don’t Host Your Own Email

Another high-profile case of a company poking in a user’s email (Microsoft, in this case), has lead to certain tech pundits espousing self-hosted email. Again. While they’re right, and email you host yourself is (mostly) immune from a third party accessing your data, there’s an intolerable air of arrogance around their idea of self-hosted email. What I read, when Ben Brooks writes about “owning” email is: “I have the time, money, and technical skill to administer an email server. If you don’t have all of those things, you’re getting what you deserve.”

Yes, Google crawls through your email to target ads. Yes, that sucks. Even if you “personally don’t even like emailing people who use Gmail,” you don’t get the right to act high and mighty, because you have time, money, and skills that the majority of people don’t have. Furthermore, unless you’re hosting your server in your own house, where you control all access, remote and physical, there’s still the possibility of someone getting at your email. Even Fastmail with Australia’s laws protecting data, would probably cave if someone knocked on their data center door with a court order and a bunch of men with guns.

So, unless you are totally fine with your email being accessible to the government, and the company hosting it, I suggest you go host it yourself.

But that’s the biggest problem. Self-hosted email is outside of the reach of most people. I have the chops to set up a basic email server, install a spam filter (or have MailRoute point to my server). What I don’t have is the money to spend on hardware and hosting, and the time to keep a mail server up to date with security patches and other administrative crap. If you expect your average Gmail user to “own” their email to the tune of a few hundred dollars up front, and the monthly price of hosting, you expect too much. Suggesting, as Marco Arment does that a user who handles truly sensitive data pay for a Fastmail account is more reasonable, and not nearly as condescending. (And why has Google allowed unencrypted connections for this long, again?)

There’s problems with the arrangement around free email services, to be sure. I’m not happy about Google’s ad algorithms poking through my email, but it’s a trade off I’m willing to take to not do it myself. I’m really not happy about the idea of my government poking through my email either, but I’m not going to blame Google for that. [1] We can address these issues, and educate people about what they’re giving up when they sign up for free email services, without the intolerable air of technological privilege. I suggest people like Ben Brooks try that, before being smug about how secure his ivory tower is.

  1. See previous comment about men with court orders and guns.  ↩