Abstract

There are many problems with the existing Internet email system, such as spam, scam, surveillance, insecurity, centralization, and complexity. The problems are starting to outweigh the benefits of the system. Fixing the problems by evolving the current system seems overwhelmingly difficult. This essay examines some solutions to the problems on the assumption that a completely new, parallel email system can be built.

This is not a proposal for a new system, but an exploration of the solution space, meant to provoke constructive discussion.

Introduction

I am tired of the existing Internet email system, both as a sender of email, as a recipient, and as an operator of an email server.

There’s rampant spam, scam, and attempts at solving those help making the email system more centralized ways. This essay is about sketching what a good email system would look like, if it were re-designed from scratch, using everything we’ve learned over the decades, and without having to use any part of the existing system.

As an anecdote, I am currently not on any active email discussion lists, or groups, or subscribed to newsletters. I have a few separate email addresses that I give to online shops as contact information. My main address has been used for free and open source software contribution for many years.

I get less than five valid emails a day, usually from friends. Also, a small number of valid notification emails from automated systems. I get on the order of 400 spam and scam emails a day. They vary greatly in how targeted they are. They are all unsolicited and unwelcome. Unfortunately, despite honing my email filters for decades now, sometimes a valid email from a new sender ends up being filtered as spam, and I’m at risk of missing it.

Sometimes those emails are important, such as questions about some of my contributions, or notifications from a purchase I’ve made. If I didn’t skim my spam folder manually I would’ve missed the email about some of my software being used in Africa to provide local people with useful SMS services that would’ve been financially impossible with proprietary software.

There are good aspects the existing Internet email has that are still valuable enough that I continue to use it. I am, however, getting closert o the point that I’d like to make things radically better.

This essay collects my thoughts about email and what a replacement system might look like. I am not in a position to build the new system in my free time, but I can at least try to inspire more people to think about this and maybe the discussion will end up with something good.

Good aspects to keep

I find the following aspects of the current email system good and valuable and would like a new system to retain them.

  • Ubiquitous. Approximately everyone on the Internet has email, or can get it. Any replacement should be easy for anyone to start using.

  • Anyone can email anyone. This lowers barriers for communication, globally. It’s especially important for free and open source software projects, but also to allow people all over the world to easily self-organize to build a better world in general.

  • Distributed: sender and recipient don’t need to use the same server. Anyone can set up their own server, assuming time, know-how, and a little money.

  • Standardized: there are many implementations and they’re mostly inter-operable.

  • Supports off-line use. Not everyone can, or wants to, be online all the time.

Problems with the existing email system

  • Spam, or unsolicited bulk messages. Worse, anti-spam measures drive centralization, and are still ineffective, especially for those not using one of the huge centralized providers. End result: you either sacrifice privacy or you get tons of spam.

    • Spam is a result of the desirable feature that anyone can email anyone, combined with the fact that sending an email costs approximately nothing, even if you send millions of emails, and aggravated by the fact that spamming has de-facto no real financial or legal repercussions.
  • Scam, or trying to convince people to do something that they shouldn’t or that’s harmful to them or others. There is no widely used method to digitally sign email, and thus criminals can easily fake messages to look like they come from, say, Amazon, Netflix, Paypal, or other companies the recipient is likely to use. Everyone needs to be constantly on their toes to avoid mistakes.

    • There are standards for digitally signed email, but they’re not great, and the big providers of email software or service tend not to support them, or support them badly.
  • Becoming centralized to a few huge providers. This is bad for privacy and can be catastrophic for security. If one of the big providers gets breached, up to hundreds of millions of people’s communications are at risk.

    • We’re moving towards a future where hosting email yourself makes you suspicious. It’s already the case that it is difficult for a self-hosted email server to reach people on Gmail. Also, the rules keep changing.

    • Worse, all the big email service providers have track records of closing people’s accounts with no warning. Sometimes this happens by accident, sometimes due to nefarious policies.

  • No real privacy, even if you self-host. Email is by default in clear text, and while there are standards for encryption, they are not widely used, and tend to also leave metadata (headers) unencrypted. It’s difficult to hide who is sending email to whom.

  • HTML email is not well standardized, and is a security and privacy risk. Different email clients implement HTML in different ways, and the web standards are not followed very closely.

    • Worse, there’s an assumption that HTML emails can embed images from the Internet, which results in more security problems (images are complicated data provided by a potential attacker, and just viewing them is a security risk) and privacy issues (the image hosting service will be notified when you view the email, see tracking pixels).

      There are moves to restrict this, but the problems have been known since HTML email was introduced, and the problems continue to exist. Some problems (such as embedding remote images) have gotten at least partial solutions, but the problems shouldn’t exist at all.

  • Attachments fill disks. Email is commonly used to share files, because it’s easy and ubiquitous, even if it’s not very good at it. There are services that make this better, but they are mostly proprietary, and require extra effort, are not ubiquitous, and people mostly don’t use them routinely.

  • There is no good support for group discussions. Massive dumps of forwarded discussions are commonplace in most large organizations. Mailing list managers exist, but they tend to be clunky, and tend to not be great for having discussions among large groups of people. They’re better at sending out announcements and newsletters.

    • Email threads work, technically, but tend to result in surprisingly little communication happening, in the general case. People mix topics in threads, split the same topic into new threads, and generally don’t use threads as intended. This is not the fault of people, but the technology.
  • The technologies and standards for email are getting ridiculously complicated. Email was originally designed for relatively short messages in English only. To support non-English languages in a backwards compatible manner, email has gained whole extended families of ways to encode text and data: uuencode, base64, quoted-printable, and header encoding, to start with.

    The email tech stack is getting so hard to understand that it’s difficult to even use, never mind implement correctly. Never mind that the complexity results in more effort to operate and keep the servers secure.

The spam and scam problem

There are a large number of problems. Rather than attacking all of them at once, let’s consider them one at a time, and let’s start with the most obvious problem: spam. As a side effect, the solution proposed below should also solve the scam problem.

Problem statement

The spam problem can be stated as follows:

Anyone can send email to anyone else. There is practically no cost to the sender for sending many emails. It’s difficult for the recipients to filter unwanted mail away automatically, because it would require the computer to understand human communication as well as humans.

The scam problem can be stated as follows:

Anyone can send email that looks like it comes from someone else, at least sufficiently well that an unobservant recipient is fooled. This can be used to con the recipient to click a link in the email that leads to a fake web shop, for example, or a site that attacks the recipient with malware.

Overview of solution

  • Every email user has one or more identities, represented by cryptographic keys.

  • All email is digitally signed using the cryptographic keys.

  • No email is delivered unless it carries a digital stamp issued by the recipient, or someone authorized to issue one on behalf of the recipient.

The idea for stamps comes to me from Serge Wroclawski, who seems to have gotten it from Christine Lemmer Webber and Taler, and who knows where it originated from.

Seth Godin also discusses his idea of paid stamps for email, originally from late 1980s or early 1990s, with the idea that low volumes are free, but after that you pay a “penny” per email. I’m not really happy with the exact solution suggested, as it doesn’t provide the recipient from a way to avoid unsolicited junk from arriving, but the podcast is part of a discussion.

Digital identities

In this approach, each email user can have as many email identities as they want, and each identity is represented by a key pair for public key cryptography. The identities are not necessarily linked, just like personal and work email addresses are not linked. However, they may be linked, so that for example an identity used for open source contributions may be linked to an identity used for publishing poetry or for contributing to Wikipedia.

The key pair, consisting of a public and a private key, is used to identify the email account and messages from the account. Every message sent using an identity is signed with the key for that identity.

This means misrepresenting the sender becomes much harder, reducing the possibility for scam.

Each identity (key pair) can have metadata associated with it, such as a name. There can be digital signatures for the metadata for certifying it, to avoid miscreants faking identities by creating new keys and associating someone else’s name on them. With the metadata signatures, the recipient’s email software can at least attempt to verify correctness of the metadata.

Alternatively, names are handled only on the recipient’s side. If I get a message from you, and I’m sure it’s from you, I can tell my email address book that the key you used to sign the message should have your name. If a miscreant creates a new key, my email software won’t say it’s from you, and the miscreant has to convince me that it’s you. (This needs further thought.)

Digital signatures

For the purposes of this discussion, assume a way to digitally sign messages that covers the whole message, including its metadata. The details of how that is achieved do not matter: digital signatures have well-known, good solutions and since we are talking about a new system, we don’t have to be compatible with the problems of the existing email system.

For this discussion, assume each message can be securely verified as having been sent by its sender identity. If a message claims to be from an identity, but its signature can’t be verified, the message is rejected by the recipient’s email software.

On encryption

To solve the problem of surveillance, email encryption is going to be needed. The simple solution is to always encrypt everything.

Digital stamps

A digital stamp is a digital token issued by a recipient which gives a sender the capability to send one or more messages to the recipient.

A digital stamp is more powerful than a physical, paper stamp. Paper stamps can be transferred (sold, given) without limit. A digital stamp, however, allows more features:

  • only the recipient can decide if it’s still valid: the recipient can invalidate otherwise valid stamps

  • digital stamps can have a complicated validity time: perhaps they’re only valid for three months? or only on Mondays? or only during office hours? It’s up to the recipient to decide.

  • digital stamps may be indefinitely usable, or single-use: you might give someone new a stamp they can use only once, and if you don’t give them another, longer-lived stamp, you won’t get further email from them

    • for example, I might order a mug from an online shop and give them two single-use stamps: one for sending me the order confirmation and another for sending me a notification of shipment
  • digital stamps may be valid only for a specific sender: I might issue a stamp to a shop and if they sell my contact information to a spammer, the spammer can’t use the stamp to send me email; further, I will know the shop gave the stamp to the spammer

As an extra twist, digital stamps may also be an authorization to someone else to issue stamps on your behalf. Rather than the stamp allowing them to send you an email, it lets them create a stamp that lets a third party send you an email. Your email software can put any and all the constraints it puts on stamps you issue directly on the delegation.

For example, if you and Alfred have a mutual friend, Bruce, you can give Bruce a stamp that authorizes Bruce to issue single-use stamps to other identities. If Bruce thinks you and Alfred should know each other, Bruce can issue Alfred a stamp that lets Alfred send you a single email. If you like Alfred, you can issue further stamps to Alfred.

An employer runs their own email server, and that server determines which stamps it accepts. This lets an employer issue stamps on behalf of each of their employees.

Receiving email from strangers

In some cases it’s important to be able to receive email from strangers. A stranger here is someone to whom you’ve not given given a digital stamp. Some examples of when this might be important:

  • you’re an open source developer and you wish to receive bug reports from strangers
  • you work in a customer-facing role in a company and your customers need to be able to reach you
  • you’ve saved a dog from a tree and journalists need to be able to reach to set up interviews
  • someone you went to school with wants to congratulate you on your marriage, birthday, newborn child, or other life event
  • a former co-worker wants to ask if you want a new job with their new employer

Some of these cases can be handled by not using email: bug reports can go into a web-based ticketing system; customers can get a single-use stamp whenever they pay their invoice; etc. However, there will always be cases when you want email from people to whom you’ve not yet given a stamp.

A mail server can, optionally, have a feature where it gives anyone a single-use stamp tied to a specific sender identity. Unfortunately, this could easily be abused by spammers: they’ll automate the step of requesting a stamp before sending the email. To counter that, the mail server can impose conditions on giving out stamps:

  • In the simplest case, the server might never give out stamps; this prevents spam at the cost of all desired email from strangers. Whether that’s an acceptable compromise is up to each recipient.

  • The server might require the putative sender to solve a CAPTCHA of some kind. The CAPTCHA might be a puzzle that is infeasible to solve automatically.

  • The server might require the sender to write a short sentence of why they want to reach the recipient. If that contains keywords chosen by the recipient, the server issues the stamp.

  • The server might require some sort of proof of work. This can be cheap enough that it doesn’t matter for rare occasions, but expensive enough that a spammer would need to expend so much computing resources it becomes infeasible. (See also hashcash by Adam Back for an early suggestion.)

  • The server could require a very small payment. (This is troublesome in international communication, when “very small” is a irrelevant to someone working in a rich country, but a sizable fraction of the annual earnings of someone living in a poor country.)

The issuing of stamps to strangers is optional, and is meant to be an interactive process. There doesn’t need to be a standard way to do that, or even an enumerated set of standard ways. Each mail server, even each recipient, can invent their own. Flexibility here is important, as spammers will evolve ways to circumvent any common methods.

Identities and mail delivery

In the existing email system, your email address is your identity. The address basically specifies where to deliver email meant for you. If you change email providers, the address changes. This makes no sense: you’re you even if you switch Google’s mail service to Microsoft’s.

There are workarounds for this. One can set up automatic forwarding of incoming email from the old address to the new one. One can arrange to have one’s own domain name, and arrange with one’s email provider to use that in the email address, instead of the provider’s domain. These workarounds work, but they add friction and cost.

A better way would be to separate the concepts: keep identity separate from address, as a fundamental building block of the email system. Here’s my thinking:

  • You, the person, can have any number of identities. You can keep your work persona separate from your school persona. You can further separate you as a spouse and a family member from your public persona as an open source developer, blogger, and so on. This is similar to having many email addresses, but it can be made to be a normal thing, and not involve any hassle.

    An identity is a random string, but it can have a number of attributes intended for people: names, photos, links to web pages, etc. The attributes are meant to help other people understand whose identity it is, and what role or aspect of that person the identity reflects. Attributes may carry certifications from others, and your email client will make it obvious if an attribute is certified by someone you trust or not.

  • Each of your identities uses an mail store, which is where all the email for that identity is stored. The mail store may be on your computer, perhaps as part of your mail client, or it may be on a server somewhere. You may run the store yourself, or someone may run it for you, based on an agreement between you and them. The mail store has an address, and it can do things on your behalf, automatically, such as issue stamps, or forward the mail to one or more recipients.

  • When email is sent, it’s sent to an mail drop. The drop may be part of the same server where the store is, or it can be a separate server. The drop will accept emails based on stamps: a stamp will include an authorization to use that drop for a the intended recipient. You need to arrange with a drop that it accepts mail for you, and this gives you the authorization to include in your stamp. The arrangement also includes telling the drop what to do with an email it has accepted: how and whom to notify of its arrival. It further includes telling the drop how long to store an email.

    Drops will store the emails they accept until either a store or another drop fetches them, or they expire. When a drop sends a notification that an email has arrived, it can send it to a mail store or another mail drop.

Confidentiality and authenticity

Each identity will have an encryption key, for public key cryptography. All emails sent using that identity are digitally signed using the key: this allows others to verify that an email actually comes from a specific person, and that the mail hasn’t been altered along the way.

All email is also encrypted as well as signed. Everything that can be encrypted, will be encrypted. This includes all message metadata (“headers” in the current system). If mail drops or stores need to add metadata, they’ll attach another encrypted part to the message.

All communication between mail clients, stores, and drops are encrypted (a la HTTPS), and may occur over the Tor network. All server components may be provided as Tor onion services, if the server operator so chooses.

Implementation thoughts

While I’m not going to be spending my free time to implement this, I can’t help having thoughts about how it would be done. Here is a loose collection of some of them.

  • Build on top of HTTPS. Avoid inventing new protocols at that level. I’d favor RESTful APIs, myself.

  • Express message text as something similar to the Pandoc abstract syntax tree, rather than specifying a specific language, such as HTML or Markdown. Languages require trickier parsing. Having just one way to represent messages should simplify interoperability. The representation should avoid supporting arbitrary sender-provided code to run as that would a big security risk.

  • The abstract syntax tree should have a way to explicitly mark text as a quote from another message, and that new text is a direct response to the quoted part.

  • I’d favor building the encryption on top of OpenPGP, given it’s a proven framework. I’m not a cryptographic engineer, though, so wiser heads need to do that work.

  • Instead of large attachments, it may be preferable to have a mail store provide the attachments on demand, attaching an authorization token in the email for downloading the attachment instead. The recipient’s mail store can do the downloading automatically for trusted senders.

What next?

Do you think the solution proposed in this essay for spam and scam will help? If not, why not? Can you see a way for a miscreant to circumvent the proposed solution to get their unwanted message delivered to the recipient?

Other proposals to improve email

There have been a very large number of proposals to improve email over the years. This is an incomplete list of them.

Daniel J. Bernstein proposed “Internet Mail 2000” where the central idea is that the sender stores the email, not the recipient. I’m not sure how this would solve the spam problem. Chris Siebenmann has a critique of the proposal.