I heard a commercial with the booming and illustrious voice of Rush Limbaugh. After I recovered from banging my head against my desk, I reflected on what was said in the commercial.
Rush pointed to the popular free email providers (Yahoo, Google, and others) to remind you that they scan your email. To remind you that they sell your email address, and other information about you, to the highest bidder. To remind you that the use of these free email addresses may increase your risk of spam mail. In contrast, purchasing an email address from Reagan.com provides you with private and secure email, and your information will never be sold.
I was intrigued.
I found that Rush was not the only conservative advertising this servic. Fox, CBS, and many others also endorsed it, though for slightly different political reasons; they primarily portrayed it as an email alternative “for conservatives”. They said that, unlike these free services, Reagan.com email would not have you unknowingly contributing to “the liberals”. These are hard-and-fast definitions, people.
Michael Reagan, founder of Reagan.com and son of, you guessed it, Ronald Reagan, has this to say about his service:
[...] every time you use your email from companies like Google, AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail, Apple and others, you are helping the liberals. These companies are, and will continue to be, huge supporters financially and with technology of those that are hurting our country.
Because apparently liberals are the only ones that are interested in using technology to advance our country. And apparently “the liberals” are the only people benefiting from these huge corporations. Obviously, they would never help “the conservatives”. Regardless, this is a relatively empty claim as its never actually substantiated.
Politics aside, allow me to explain to you from a technical perspective why the commercials endorsing Reagan.com and even the information on Reagan.com is largely misleading.
The key phrases here are that their “advertising network providers” have the right to collect information about “content viewed”. I don’t know about you, but the content I primarily view while logged onto my email is … email.
Reagan.com uses the affiliate networkadvertising.org for their ads (why they show ads on a service they charge for is beyond me). Ironically, if you look through the list of partners of Network Advertising, four companies may quickly jump out at you: Microsoft (Hotmail), AOL, Yahoo, and Google. Just to name a few. Which means much of the same ad revenue that these companies may generate from your use of their free email services may still be generated for them through your use of Reagan.com.
This last point is key to highlighting the disconnect between the claim of the Reagan.com email service and the reality of the internet’s interconnectivity. This disconnect has also recently been highlighted with the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills passing through Congress. You have politicians proposing bills, or in this case making a buck using the influence of politics, on technical subjects in which they have little to no understanding.
If privacy is what you seek, you cannot use the internet, and you certainly cannot use email (unless it is isolated to an internal network). Even if a given email was secure and private while on the Reagan.com servers, any incoming and outgoing messages will go through a server at some point somewhere in the world that is likely owned, operated, or affiliated with one of the internet or server giants, including Google. Coincidentally, even if you had a Reagan.com email address and sent an email to yourself, the email would still go through one of these external servers before returning to you.
Next claim. Reagan.com is email for conservatives, right? So supposedly using Reagan.com will support a conservative agenda rather than a liberal agenda. Perhaps directly, and on the very surface, but indirectly (and about half an inch below the surface down to bedrock) no. As I said before, you can’t take something as intertwined and complex as the internet and expect to take the biggest internet giants out of it. Ironically, on the same site that Michael Reagan is falsely boasting that his service will get you away from those Big Brother liberal companies, he provides instructions for how to configure his email service to work on your mobile device. You know, the one made by Blackberry, Apple, or Motorola (owned by Google) running the Android OS (also owned by Google).
Let’s give Reagan the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume he’s not trying to insinuate it’s Big Business we should distrust. Maybe he’s suggesting Google, Yahoo, and the like sell your information to the government, and that’s where the privacy risk comes in. This is half true … although they don’t sell it. And, again, Reagan.com won’t get you away from this. Even when using Reagan.com, as soon as the email leaves the Reagan.com servers, the United States government will have the opportunity to seize and view the email. They probably won’t, unless you’re a terrorist suspect, but they always have the right, no matter your provider, thanks to the Patriot Act. Heck, even on the Reagan.com servers the government has the right to seize it under this act.
There’s a phrase that somebody said once goes something like:
Is it really free if it costs you your privacy?
That’s up to you to decide, really. But if you believe internet companies are the only ones tracking personal information about your daily habits … well, let’s just say you should stop shopping at Target. Or Wal-Mart. Or Best Buy. Or really any major chain in America. Personally, I don’t think a corporation tracking your habits to better serve you with ads related to your interests is an invasion of your privacy.
The cost of Reagan’s supposedly private and secure email service is $40 per year. This service is rented from a man who has no technical expertise and is not a server administrator. His Terms of Service clearly and painfully guarantee you nothing in terms of support, up-time, warranty, or back-up. And if you’re expecting new features in the future … well, don’t hold your breath.
On the other hand, companies like Google and Yahoo have incentive to provide you with new features. They have incentive to guarantee you up-time, because every second their servers are down is ad revenue lost for them. They have dedicated support teams to ensure their servers are always running at peak health, and they have redundantly connected servers and farms, just in case.
Reagan’s servers go down? I’m sure they’ll get it back up eventually. But, you know, you’ve already paid them your $40, so they don’t lose money by the second when the service is down. And it is owned by a politician … so don’t expect a quick turnaround.