In a move that could affect as many as 20 million Americans, the U.S. District Court for New York has ruled that a Poughkeepsie man will need to retain all the email in his inbox, and must respond to it with all due haste. The man, 37-year-old Bob Sneed, a sales executive at a local ISP, was intending to delete over 7,500 unread email messages until halted by a court order.
The case was brought by Sneed's brother-in-law, Philip S. Duenzel, an attorney in Illinois, who used the federal court system because the case crossed state lines. Duenzel alleged, and the court upheld, that he would suffer irreparable damages if Sneed failed to respond to a documented 107 separate emails sent over 3 months, each of which asked for a reply. The email messages variously covered family issues, money owed for shared gifts to relatives, and 23 collections of jokes about lawyers.
In a statement read by his attorney, Sneed said, "I believe the courts are in error for restraining an individual from exercising his right to discrimination: discriminating among which emails are important enough to answer, and which deserve to be deleted without opening." Sneed is appealing the decision, and until then is relying on a filter that displays and automatically replies to messages from Duenzel as soon as they are received.
Sneed was attempting to declare "email bankruptcy" by deleting all current messages and starting over. According to research ranging from studies by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to the National Rifle Association's frequent member polls, email bankruptcy is an increasingly attractive option to those overwhelmed with hundreds or thousands of unread email messages.
Judge Randall Siemenbocher's decision could affect both personal and business users, pending Sneed's appeal, which has left him in limbo. One Gartner researcher pegged the impact at "$500 billion in lost productivity and legal liability each year" if businesses are prevented from deleting any unread messages. Jaylee Schmitzenlooper, a Gartner senior analyst, said, "Theoretically, this decision could be used to require both individuals and businesses to accept all spam messages, since there's little technical difference between deleting unread messages in your inbox and having a spam filter do so for you."
Commenters on Slashdot have already suggested an underground business that would remotely corrupt inboxes in exchange for payments made through third-party anonymous payment systems. One commenter, apparently already in the planning stages for an Albanian-located firm, wrote, "For $50, we could send you an email message that would infect your computer, delete the inbox, and leave clear traces for any potential forensic investigation to prove that it wasn't your fault. We'd perform an antivirus cleanup at no extra cost."
For those of us facing nearly 1,000 unread messages with no hope of responding to them all, now is the time to press Delete.