Netiquette Banner Netiquette, by Virginia Shea, page 127

The prescription for these ills is twofold:

  • 1. Understand how your email system and network are set up, and just who can see what.
  • 2. Don't do stupid things.

Unfortunately, etiquette books can't eliminate human carelessness. So, just as the only 100% effective form of birth control is abstinence, you could prevent breaches of privacy by refusing to use email. For most of us, however, neither remedy holds much attraction. A fallback remedy is to follow your grandmother's advice: Never put anything in writing that you wouldn't mind seeing on the front page of the New York Times.

Of course, the rule of etiquette is the same for email as for old-fashioned letters: Never, ever snoop in another person's papers.

Company policies on email content and privacy

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 makes it illegal to intercept electronic messages sent over public systems (for example, America Online or MCI Mail) without a search warrant. But the law doesn't address the privacy rights of employees whose email accounts are provided by their employers. Even in states like California, where citizens have a constitutional right to privacy, the rules aren't clear. That leaves the legal ball in the court of the company policy.

But few companies have policies on corporate email. The email policies that exist address the content, distribution, and privacy of email. Privacy policies range from "Management can read any message any time for any reason" to "No one looks at anyone else's mail. Period." Rules on the contents can be as restrictive as "Email is to be used for business-related communication only" or as open as "Email may be used for personal purposes at will."

The best of these policies reserve the company's right to examine email for legitimate business purposes, but forbid any unauthorized person to read or intercept another person's mail. They usually allow personal use within reason, operating on the assumption that if an employee


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