Thursday, September 18, 2008

ATR: Email is to the 21st Century as Toxic Waste was to the 20th Century

Well now, there's something to get your brain churning. Last week I was at an e-discovery forum and one of the speakers (who was quoting someone else -- I must have had my thoughts on the latest message on my Motorola Q) made that observation. I've probably butchered it, but the point is the same.

So if you think about how some companies handled toxic waster last century, you know that many just dumped it wherever. It went into the ground, it went into the water, it went into landfills. No one cared. There was no real regulation and no real penalty for not taking care of it. The stuff just seemed to accumulate faster and faster. It was expensive to deal with and you couldn't store it forever. And doggone it, it was hard to reduce and make safe.

Fast forward. Email. Sound familiar?

Toxic waste continued to accumulate until people got sick and the plaintiffs' lawyers realized that they had the makings of a bonanza. Then the government got involved. It made some hard rules, forced companies to clean up their mess (and fined them for good measure), and made sure that it didn't happen again. And companies tried to fix things. They went looking for their messes. They fought over who was responsible for cleaning something up. They paid the fines. And some companies went out of business. But most of the problem eventually got solved and most of the toxic waste issues have been dealt with. But then not every company created toxic waste.

On the other hand, we have email. Every company has it. And very few manage it well. So now you have piles and piles of electronic waste all over the enterprise. People stumble on disks in closets. Someone leaves and a manager has thousands of emails to review. People mix business with personal correspondence. Business correspondence takes place outside the enterprise. The stuff is accumulated at nearly vertical rates. And the lawyers are circling. The court system in the United States is starting to take notice. Rules have been written that require companies to be forthcoming about where their stuff is. Some companies have been punished for not producing what they had. And the cost of find and produce this stuff keeps growing.

Now enter greater concerns about privacy. Here's a very similar line of thinking from Cory Doctorow:

"Personal data is as hot as nuclear waste -- We should treat personal electronic data with the same care and respect as weapons-grade plutonium - it is dangerous, long-lasting and once it has leaked there's no getting it back." (Posted in The Guardian.)

One of these days we're going to need a Superfund for all those emails...

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