Sending a message

The pretrial proceedings of US vs Microsoft have yielded a tantalising bit of corporate intrigue: e-mail snippets from Microsoft and Netscape Communications that have been released by both parties in the case.

The documents show executives conspiring to annihilate one another with all the vindictive glee of 10-year-olds in a school yard. This corporate voyeurism has been fascinating, but it should send a chill down your spine if you are responsible for administering e-mail.

You may want to route copies of these messages to users with a Post-it note asking, "Could this be you some day?''E-mail has become part of the fabric of many corporations. At companies such as Microsoft and Netscape, it's an essential part of the culture. But as users get comfortable with zapping gossip, competitive intelligence and dirty jokes among their computers, it's easy to forget the unique power of the medium.

Messages sent on e-mail don't evaporate like chit-chat in the cafeteria. E-mail is a traceable, searchable, archival, self-documenting medium for exchanging documents. As the Microsoft discovery process shows, the e-mail note you send today may turn up in a personnel file or court proceeding some day.

A couple of years ago, I adopted a philosophy of assuming that every e-mail I send outside the company could eventually wind up in print, in a newsgroup or on somebody's Web site. The practice has served me well - especially when some of the more vitriolic e-mail I get entices me to respond in kind.

But I wish I could say the same for my electronic musings within the walls of the company. Unfortunately, I am as guilty as anyone of letting rumour, anger and sarcasm occasionally creep into messages to my colleagues. The Microsoft case has given me pause to reconsider. You might reconsider, too.

If the judge in the antitrust case allows e-mail to become an essential part of the proceedings - and that's still a big if - it should spur every corporate e-mail administrator to revisit company policies. The department drink machine is going electronic, and with that comes a host of accountability issues.

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Paul Gillin

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