Mandating Internet service providers to forward customers’ e-mails

Washington, October 24:

The US post office forwards letters when a person moves, and telephone companies do likewise with calls. Should Internet companies be required to forward e-mails to customers who switch providers? There is no mandate in the US governing e-mail forwarding, and industry officials say imposing one would be costly and unnecessary.

But federal regulators are looking at the issue more closely following a complaint from a former America Online customer who claims an abrupt termination of service devastated her business.

Gail Mortenson, a Washington-based freelance editor, in July filed a six-page petition with the Federal Co-mmunications Commissi-on, which opened a 30-day public comment period that ends on October 26, followed by another 30-day period for replies.

Mortenson said in her complaint that she lost potential clients because they could not reach her, and she requested that Internet service providers, such as Time Warner Inc’s AOL LLC, be required to forward e-mail traffic from a closed account to a new e-mail address designated by customers for at least six months. FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said he was not aware of previous petitions regarding e-mail address forwarding or portability.

While mainstream consumer groups have not taken up the cause, it is starting to gain some attention in Congress. A representative from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, contacted Mortenson to say they were watching to see how FCC handles her complaint.

A committee spokeswo-man would not say whether it planned to take further action. Internet providers, including Time Warner Cable Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc, as well as Google Inc and Yahoo Inc, which provide e-mail services, declined to comment. Several said it is the first time they have heard about the issue.

Kate Dean, executive director of the US Internet Service Provider Association — a trade group whose members include AOL, Verizon and Comcast — said it will respond to Mortenson’s petition, but declined to make any comments until then.

Some companies, such as Yahoo and Google, allow th-eir e-mail users to forward incoming mail to another address. There are other firms, such as, that also provide an e-mail forwarding service.

Richi Jennings, an analyst with Ferris Research, said he imagines FCC could mandate that firms provide a free e-mail forwarding service, but doubts that it would “Such a forwarding service would cost service providers money in network bandwidth, server utilisation and operational overhead.”