Does Alan Duncan MP read his printed emails?

One must assume that Alan Duncan does read his emails but we have recently learned that he does tend to print them out. This possibly reprehensible exercise has led Mr. Duncan to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to outlaw the inclusion of “useless” legal disclaimers at the bottom of emails: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30710481

His beef is that when you print out such an emails you eventually waste several forests worth of paper “as page after page spews out”.

Mr Duncan actually makes a valid point about the limited contractual or legal validity of such disclaimers. However they can serve a useful purpose in advising unintended recipients what they should do, as good and responsible citizens, if they receive something which was not for them, and in a worst case scenario might protect them from doing something they later regret. Not as much as the sender will regret it, of course, as anything truly confidential or sensitive should have been encrypted and not accessible to a wrong recipient. Indeed the presence of such a disclaimer may be leading some senders into a false sense of security, and blinding them from the need to take other precautions.

However it was the printing issue, not the security issue which really upset Mr. Duncan. That small bubble of the Twittersphere which concerns itself with Information Governance matters has had a quiet titter about this. Any self-respecting Records Manager has been advising for many years that emails are (by and large) not for printing, and should be retained, if necessary, in the electronic world, preferably as part of a properly designed records management system, rather than in an ever-bloating Inbox. I do hope Mr Duncan’s departmental information team knows about these printed copies.

But has Mr Duncan actually read these exponentiating (actually an arithmetic-progression but lets ignore the maths) pages. Whilst I have seen some wordy disclaimers, I do not recall any which would merit the description “page after page”. No. I fear what Mr Duncan is actually experiencing is the endless repetition of material in a lengthy email conversation. With many users including senders text by default (bad idea in my view) when replying to an email, the last email in a 20 email exchange will include all 20 emails, and yes, if the actual exchanges are short, most of that when printed will consist of headers, footers, and disclaimers.

In short Mr Duncan has focussed on the wrong problems. Why print ? Why include prior text?

One solution Mr Duncan proposes is probably not a sensible idea. He suggests that the disclaimer should be a simple link. However if we accept that the real purpose is as a warning rather than attempting to create a legal obligation, this may un-necessarily dilute the warning effect. The better solution would be a short bold warning / disclaimer plus a ‘further-information’ link to more detail on a website – or not to send sensitive stuff by an open channel.

Of course there could be a relatively simple technological fix to this printing problem, for those cases where printing emails could be justified. All that would be required would be an amendment to the relevant standards such as SMPT to require a code to be embedded in an email at the start of any ‘prior text’, and for printer manufacturers to provide a default setting of ‘print nothing after this point’. I fear we are 20 years too late for that.

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