Saturday, August 2, 2008

Who owns your internet identity?

To answer this question, first we must define what your "internet identity" really even is. Is it your blog? Your web page? Your custom domain name? Well, technically it could be any or all of that and then some. But what I'm talking about is your email address. Seems relatively simple, doesn't it? Sure, but there are a lot of issues that people don't think about when it comes to how important their email address is.

Who owns your email address? You think you do? You might or you might not, it depends on the address. For example, everyone uses some sort of Internet Service Provider (ISP) to connect to the internet. In most cases that's your cable TV company or your telephone company via cablemodem or DSL. Many people use the email address that their ISP provides.

Many people also have internet access at work and were given an email address there so they use that for everything. And still others sign up for "free" email hosting at places like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, and even AOL (most started with AOL addresses when they had that as their dialup ISP but kept the AOL address after moving to some sort of high speed internet). A few folks use hosting services to register their own domain and then use those services (or even their own server somewhere) to host their email.

But none of that answers the question I asked of who owns your email address, does it? Nope. But it should make it a little more obvious that maybe you don't. Let's start with the places you should not use for your personal email. The worst two places I can think of are your ISP and your employer. How many people have the same ISP or the same employer forever? Not many. These things change. Why tie your personal life to a company that can terminate you or that you may want to terminate for a cheaper alternative? Don't do it. There are options.

The best thing to do is have a personal account either on your own server or hosting service (complicated, but if you want to truly own it, this is the best way) or go sign up for one of the free services. Which one? The best one I know of is Gmail. Hotmail is owned by Microsoft. Enough said. AOL is a strange company with a shaky foundation. Okay, I suppose, but they often have technical issues and don't always play well with other services. Yahoo! is likely to get bought by Microsoft, and even if not, they aren't much better than AOL in the technical department. Google is behind Gmail, and seem to be the best "steward" of free email services. They play very nicely with other services.

But why does this matter? Because your email address, unfortunately, really is your internet identity. When you sign up for a web forum or online banking or buy products online, everything is tied to your email address. Even if you select an actual "user id" on the system you're signing up for, that really gets tied to your email address because that's the only way you can retrieve or reset a lost password. What happens if you forget your password on an account you've signed up for but you've switched ISPs and thus email addresses in the meantime? You might be able to have your old ISP forward email, but what about a job change for those of you who use your work email? Most companies don't forward email for you simply because they don't want something work related getting out into the wild by accident. And guess what? You no longer work there and are thus now "in the wild" yourself, as far as they are concerned.

Gmail is free. They simply use keyword target advertising to have very easy to ignore advertisements on the sidebar of the web interface. But you can still use popular clients like the Mac Mail application, Outlook, Thunderbird, etc, to access Gmail and skip the ads. Google provides client applications for Blackberrys and other smart phones, too. And you can always log in via the web from anyone's computer. Yes, you are submitting your identity to the trust of Google, but for now I feel like that's a safe thing to do. Completely safe? No. But much safer than AOL, your employer, or your ISP.

No comments: