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Email: in defence of the delete key

Use in law unethical, judge argues

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James Rosenbaum, a district judge in Minnesota, has sparked a debate about the legal status of email with an essay called In Defence of the Delete Key.

He argues that it is unethical to take words never intended for publication and to use them in evidence against their author - likening this to punishing people for thinking things that they shouldn't.

Rosenbaum proposes that the deletion of email should be regarded as permanent in the eyes of the law. He says his comments are intended to get the debate going, rather than to define what should be done. He recommends a finite lifespan of six months be put on an email - an arbitrary figure to start the discussion.

The problem, he says, is that as the law stands you can libel someone even if you never showed the defamatory comments to another soul. All you have to do is leave it in a place where it can be found, and at the moment that stretches to include a hard drive.

This means that an employee can be sacked for a draft email that was never even completed, let alone sent, before deletion.

However, emails that had been deleted were an essential part of the case against Microsoft in the Anti Trust trial. There are other areas of concern too: New Scientist writer Donald Ramsbottom that it was unclear why should a criminal escape prosecution just because email evidence has "expired"?

Gainfully unemployed

Meanwhile, some rather spurious research results out this week show that employees cost companies up to £2.5 million per year in lost time by spending surfing the net or sending personal emails. The report was presented to the Chartered Institue of Personnell and Development.

Of course, if people were not wasting time online, they would work solidly all day long. No-one would gossip by the kettle, have non-work related conversations at their desks or just sit staring into space, nosiree. So heads down, noses to the grindstone, and stop reading this article. Now. ®

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