Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Contents of This Post may contain information that is confidential.

Longtime readers of my blogs are likely aware of my disdain for automatically generated e-mail signatures that include implied threats of legal repercussions for discussing the mail without permission.

Now, I understand the occasional need for businessfolk to keep control of their information. Honestly, I do. But I strongly believe that that need is just occasional. Including at the end of every e-mail something along these lines:

"This communication (including any information herein and any attachments hereto) is intended only for the person or entity to whom it is addressed and may contain information that is privileged, confidential, and/or otherwise protected from disclosure. If you are not the intended recipient (or the employee or agent responsible for delivering the message to the intended recipient), please notify us immediately by e-mail (at and delete this communication and any attachments and copies. Any unauthorized dissemination, distribution, and/or copying of this communication, any attachments, and/or the information contained herein is strictly prohibited." insulting, and makes whoever sent it look like a self-important douchebag.

Contrarian that I am, my response to such a notice is to want to immediately disseminate, distribute, and copy the communication it's appended to as publicly as possible. Of course, that would involve me widely communicating a bunch of thoroughly mundane communications along the lines of "Hey, Andrew, been awhile since we talked, how's it going?" The idea that mentioning someone dropped me a line to say hi is so potentially disastrous that I need to be warned not to talk about it is ludicrous to me. But that doesn't make it any less irritating.

To be clear, I absolutely would not mind if such a warning was included a mail containing, say, details about a business acquaintance's discussions with Stephanie Meyer about an upcoming Twilight comic that's pretty much a done deal as soon as the contracts are signed.*

But including a warning in every mail effectively turns it into background noise. At best, overuse makes the recipient inclined to ignore the warning, assuming they read it at all (I rarely if ever read past a person's name at the conclusion of the non-boilerplate portion of a mail). At worst, they'll look for opportunities to publicly ridicule self-important douchebags who think every note they dash off their iBerry is so earth-shakingly important that their default position is to assume every single person they e-mail is a drooling halfwit that can't be trusted not to spill their oh-so-precious secrets unless instructed not to do so.

Another interesting thing: my (admittedly limited) experience indicates an inverse relation between the amount of unenforceable legal warnings habitually included in a person's e-mail and how important that person actually is in the grand scheme of things. None of the editors at major companies I've been fortunate enough to correspond with have disclaimers in their mails.** Neither do my managers, who actually do occasionally tell me stuff in e-mail that really could potentially hurt people if I went spouting off.

The people who do tend to have them? Small press comics publishers trying to present themselves as Important People who've got Big Things Happening, offering me my Big Chance to be part of the next Image Comics revolution (unsurprisingly, my Big Chance is usually an opportunity to give a company my intellectual property for next to nothing.) (Actually, if they offer next to nothing, they're offering more than a lot of small pressers these days...)

Of course, I also want to be an Important Person who's got Big Things Happening. All the other wannabes have warnings in all their e-mails, so why shouldn't I? Here's the text attached to every mail from the my telus account:

"This message is intended for the person it was supposed to be sent to. If that doesn't appear to be you, do me a favour and let me know, will you? I'd really appreciate it. This message probably doesn't contain any confidential or privileged information, but again, if it's not too much trouble to exercise some common sense and treat reading stuff which probably ought to be privileged and confidential as a privilege and keep it confidential, again, I'd be indebted to you. My wife doesn't need to know about that thing I do with the turtle and the frozen cantaloupe. Nobody does, and I'm sorry I've brought it up now, really, but it was what sprang to mind by way of an example of the sort of thing I'd rather keep on the down low. Odds are if I'm sending you a mail, I trust you, or at least know you well enough to know I don't trust you, and therefore won't reveal information you can't be trusted with. That's just sensible, if you ask me. But if I mention anything that might get me in trouble with the law, or friends, or business acquaintances--you'll be cool, right? I don't care what all the others say about you behind your back, as far as I'm concerned, you're 110% rock solid, you'd never rat a guy out. Right? Right. OK. Cool."

And people getting messages from my gmail account will frequently see (if not actually read***) the following:

"The information in this email is confidential and may be legally privileged, but it probably isn't. Let's be realistic, here. It's not like the sender knows nuclear weapon codes or anything. Anyway, if you believe you have received this email in error, please contact the sender. If you don't believe you received this email in error, please contact the sender anyway. He is a sad and lonely man."

I like to think the people I spend my time and energy corresponding with aren't stupid or, if they are, that they're not so stupid they'll get me in trouble with their stupidity. Thankfully, I've yet to be proven wrong. Whether this is because I'm right and they aren't stupid, or because I'm not in a position to know anything interesting enough to get Rich Johnston's attention remains to be seen.****


(*Not that I've received any such e-mail. Just an example of the kind of thing that might actually merit a note encouraging discretion.)

(**Actually, I checked and I was wrong: one editor at a traditional book publisher did have a relatively***** brief note requesting people who received the mail in error delete it and inform the sender. It was about as small as possible, in an 8 point courier font compared to the 12 point Times New Roman of the body, but it did include the word "compliance".)

(***I wouldn't read it if I were them.)

(****Realistically? It's the latter, more's the pity.)

(*****Relative to comparable warnings from people who aren't editors at major New York publishing houses, that is.******)

(******Are you still reading this? My god, you're like a dog with a bone! I salute your tenacity, madam/sir!)

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