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Permanent Email Addresses

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- 18 August 1998 - Tip Jar

I couldn't believe the headline. The Clinton administration is asking the United States Postal Service to devise a system of permanent email addresses.

The great benefit of a permanent email address is that, once you have it, you can use it forever, even if you change Internet service providers.

How forward looking!

Or not. Clicking on the headline brought me to an article that does propose permanent email addresses - one per postal address.

Huh? One per postal address?

I had to reread it. Yes, it said one per postal address. (I wish I could find the article and link to it. I'm pretty sure it was on My Yahoo, but several searches there and elsewhere have found nothing.)

The first problem that occurred to me is that more than one person may reside at a given postal address. In fact, I'd guess that's the norm. So whose account would it be, mine or my wife's or. . . .

Then it struck me that postal addresses aren't particularly permanent. My wife noted the other day that we've had seven addresses since we married seventeen years ago.

Under this proposal, it seems that would have meant changing email addresses six times.

That's not very permanent.

A permanent email address

The idea of a permanent email address has great merit. That's probably why so many different services offer them - and often for free. Some, like Hotmail, require you to log onto their website to read your email. (This, of course, means you get to see the ads that cover the cost of the free service.) Others, like Iname, usually forward email to your current account elsewhere.

The concept is sound; the implementation is problematic.

I've had a multitude of email accounts over the years: DanKnight@aol.com, dknigh66@calvin.edu, dknight@bakerbooks.com, dan.knight@lowendmac.com, dan.knight@lowendmac.com, lowendmac@iname.com, dknight@mactimes.com, and who knows how many more. Some are no longer valid, nor is email sent to those addresses forwarded to me.

Anyone who only knew my AOL address could have a hard time finding me. (And just how many of these "permanent" email addresses do I have that I've already forgotten about?)

To address this issue, services such as Planet All let you register your previous email addresses. Anyone can search the service for your old address to dig up your current one.

Again, a nice service, but with so many companies offering it, what are the odds that I've registered with the one you're searching?

Another problem area completely is ISPs merging or being bought out, which means you may have to change your email address because their domain has a different name.

All of these are good arguments for a single permanent email address system and a single clearinghouse to track it and your other email addresses. However, it doesn't look like the free market will create a unified system.

A role for the Postal Service?

In many nations, it's the state-run postal and/or phone system that provides the email infrastructure. Taxes and user fees pay the way.

Is this a model that would or should work in the United States? Or, for that matter, Canada, Australia, or other nations with a free enterprise tradition?

The answer would depend on how we position the service. Most Americans have no complaints about the FCC allocating frequencies for radio, TV, portable phones, and other services. It would be very frustrating to have two stations share the same frequency, just as it would be confusing to have to individuals share the same email address.

But the Postal Service has a different paradigm: the postal address. Not only is it ludicrous to use such a model for "permanent" email addresses, it is illogical. I could see where advertisers would go for it, but not the general public.

Or perhaps it could be used only to forward email to a resident at that address. But even then the possibilities for spam would be mind boggling. It would probably be very easy to convert a database of street addresses to whatever email address scheme the Postal Service might devise.

Sorry, but I already get too much junk mail, both paper and electronic.

Implementation of a true permanent national email address system would be a task of the first order. First you'd need to devise a workable system for creating accounts. You couldn't tie it to geography, since that would make it transient.

And an email address like dknight@email.us would very much turn it into a first come, first served system which would poorly serve those who don't currently have email - by the time they sign on, they'd need increasingly long email addresses. (Remember, the population is somewhere around 250,000,000. That's a lot bigger than AOL.)

Another important factor would have to be the ability to retain an email address, or add a second one, in cases where someone changes name. Marriage is one common reason, but adoption, divorce, or otherwise legally changing one's name must also be considered.

Some thoughts

Whether the government chooses an existing federal agency to do this, creates a new one, or licenses an independent organization to implement a system of permanent email addresses, the idea has great merit.

There is already an addressing scheme in place, currently used mostly by schools, which could be adapted - domains ending in .us.

These being permanent email addresses, I would assume the government would want you using your real name, not some obscure alias. Any email system can handle uncommon names, but the ability to handle maybe a million John Smiths is another story, even taking middle names into account.

There should be some fluidity, allowing a John called Jack to use that name. And some people have nicknames that follow them for a lifetime, which might also be legitimate under a national email addressing scheme.

The system would have to make allowances for changing names - and forwarding email sent to the old address to the new one. Thus it becomes quite possible we would need a billion email addresses.

If you're thinking Social Security Number, I've already discarded that idea. The last thing you want to do is let everyone know your social security number. The only other scheme of such magnitude is the phone system, but phone numbers are no more permanent than postal addresses.

Implementation

Frankly, this is where I'm stumped. I can foresee that we'd need more than a single domain such as email.us to handle all these addresses. Part of the reason is practical: you wouldn't want a single server responsible for millions upon millions of email addresses. You'd need to distribute the load and build in redundancy so one or several servers failing wouldn't cripple the system.

One possibility is using state abbreviations. A server handling Michigan could control the domain mi.email.us. (The state abbreviation would be that state where you lived when you created the account. If you left the state, that account could auto forward to your new account.) But still, several states have millions of residents. There are many permutations of dknight@mi.email.us (dan.knight, daniel.knight, d.knight, dknight234, etc.), but the more obscure we make it, the harder it will be for others to remember.

Like AOL, I've run out of ideas. You can let people pick, telling them which ones are already in use, but that gets very frustrating after five or ten tries.

I'm stumped

This is beyond me. It's probably beyond most of us, although some email Einstein may dream up a brilliant system.

It's probably beyond the Postal Service, too. Sure, they could take a brute force approach to it, but a permanent email address system for the entire nation should be elegant, not merely functional.

The article I read said the Postal Service is seeking feedback. If so, I haven't seen anything on their site <http://www.usps.gov/> about it, so I don't have a clue how you'd provide the feedback.

Maybe next time you visit the Post Office you could ask your postmaster about it. And maybe your idea will be the one that shapes an elegant, efficient system of permanent email addresses.

Put on your thinking cap.

Further reading

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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