Notice: This column is the product of a carbon-based life form. It is often written while under the influence of caffeinated beverages and under deadline pressures of varying severity. As such, it may occasionally depart from a full and complete accordance with the truth and/or prevailing standards of taste. It may also exhibit an excessive number of references to the collective oeuvre of George Lucas.
Just thought I'd get that out of the way first. It seems to be the fashionable thing to do these days. Just ask anybody who's gotten an e-mail from a lawyer friend lately (which around here has to mean pretty much anybody). At the end of that message, whether it's a consultation on a traffic ticket or the latest Bill Clinton joke, you'll usually see some boilerplate text like this:
This message is being sent by or on behalf of a lawyer. It is intended exclusively for the individual or entity to which it is addressed. This communication may contain information that is proprietary, privileged or confidential or otherwise legally exempt from disclosure. If you are not the named addressee, you are not authorized to read, print, retain, copy or disseminate this message or any part of it. If you have received this message in error, please notify the sender immediately by e-mail and delete all copies of the message.
This notice raises a number of interesting questions. For instance, suppose the sender types in the wrong address and you become an unwitting recipient. Now what? Since its placement at the end of the message means you can't read it without having read the rest of the message first, what good is that "you are not authorized to read this message" declaration? For another thing, isn't a notice that shouts "Don't read this!" really the equivalent of "Read this now!" to certain mischievous minds?
Now, now; this isn't a time to bash lawyers. There are sound professional reasons for this sort of disclaimer. (I'm told that the custom is derived from the notices that go on law firms' fax cover sheets; faxes are all too easy to send to the wrong number, as many a hapless intern has discovered in hectic campaign seasons.) But other organizations have picked up on this habit as well. Not long ago, I received a message from a correspondent working at Best Buy, which ended with this solemn warning:
NOTICE: E-Mail and Internet communications are not necessarily confidential, and possibly may not be received reliably or timely. Please deliver crucial or sensitive messages by other means.
Is this supposed to be some sort of advisory that the mail server there isn't up to snuff? I'm not sure. And then there's the lengthy notice appended to each outgoing e-mail at a San Francisco-based publisher of computer-industry trade magazines:
The recipient acknowledges that Computec Media, Inc., is unable to exercise control over the content of information contained in transmissions made via the Internet. Computec Media, Inc., hereby excludes any warranty (written or implied) as to the quality or accuracy of any information contained in this message and any liability of any kind for the information contained, therein, or for its transmission, reception, storage or usage in any way, whatsoever.
Warranty? Liability? How much can go wrong with a simple message, anyway? That disclaimer is also way too long. I prefer the haiku-like simplicity of the two-line notice that I've seen used at a few companies around town:
Because e-mail can be altered electronically,
the integrity of this communication cannot be guaranteed.
So crisp! So concise!
What's weird about all this legalese is how it states what should be obvious about any form of communication less direct than a face-to-face conversation. E-mail can be fabricated, but so can letterheads and signatures. Nobody's stopping you from putting a fake return address on your letter or FedEx shipment, and the Postal Service has been known to delay its deliveries from time to time as well. And of the people I deal with regularly, there aren't that many whose voices I could recognize and identify with 100 percent accuracy.
Unsurprisingly, some folks have taken to parody to make fun of this glut of unnecessary legalese:
This mail is a natural product. The slight variations in spelling and grammar enhance its individual character and beauty and in no way are to be considered flaws or defects.
The Post doesn't attach any such disclaimers to employee e-mail, but I've seen other signs of this attitude here. When I started writing pieces for the Web column in Style (at the time, it was more like the America Online column, but that's another subject entirely), I was told that I should confirm e-mail contacts over the phone, just in case somebody was trying to spoof somebody else's identity. That made little sense to me; how was I supposed to tell the real from the fake by voice and not in text? So I usually didn't bother to call.
Besides, the disclaimers are false: E-mail can be made far more secure than paper mail or voice mail. And it need not cost you a cent: Just fetch a copy of Pretty Good Privacy, create a set of encryption keys for yourself and you're set (as I wrote two months ago). But most people don't do that, even when they should. It seems we're used to a certain amount of insecurity and uncertainty in our e-mail. Just like in our paper mail and our phone conversations. The ones-and-zeroes nature of e-mail can convey a sense of mathematical precision and exactitude, but don't take it too seriously--it's still only people talking.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.