Pros and Cons of Anonymous Corporate E-Mail

March 31, 1994|MICHAEL SCHRAGE | Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes this column independently for The Times

XYZ Corp.(not its real name) has a problem that's driving top management crazy. A rogue piece of software has appeared that lets employees send electronic mail messages anonymously. There's been a rash of sexually suggestive--and even obscene--e-mail sent to several female employees. Unpopular managers have received insulting e-mail appraisals of their style and performance.

More ominously, several messages have been broadcast detailing serious problems with several of XYZ's key projects. These were setbacks that had previously been the secret of top management but, thanks to XYZ's global network, have now been instantly distributed worldwide to launch hundreds of e-mail queries and thousands of water-cooler conversations.

Like kerosene poured on a fire, this act of e-mail anonymity has ignited once-smoldering resentments into openly burning issues. While half the company is thrilled that anonymity has caused these problems to surface for corporate-wide discussion, the other half is furious that the leakers can't be found and punished.

Ultimately, XYZ's top management pulled the plug on its global e-mail system, rewrote the network software to assure that all messages can be tracked at least two ways and issued an edict that absolutely forbids anonymous messages. The traffic that now flows on XYZ's network is excruciatingly polite.

This XYZ Corp. example is hardly fictitious; it's an unhappy composite of real-world confrontations that recently occurred in several Fortune 1,000 companies. More than any other e-mail issue, the anonymity option provokes the most heated debate in organizational network design.

The right to e-mail anonymity strikes at the very heart of values that organizations either cherish or try to suppress. Some organizations see anonymity as a healthy, essential part of their internal dialogue, a mechanism that promotes free and unfettered comment. Others see anonymity as a sleazy virtual mask that lets corporate mischief makers and malcontents get away with cheap shots at people who have the guts to sign their names to their messages.

At one giant aerospace manufacturer, for example, managers are positively grateful that their brainstorming software encourages anonymous contributions. "If we had to attach our names to our suggestions, I think people would be less forthcoming," insists one engineer there who, yes, asks not to be identified.

The culture of the company, he argues, makes it difficult for younger engineers to publicly make comments critical of senior engineering decisions. The fact that software anonymity effectively subsidizes the existing culture rather than encouraging a more open and honest exchange of ideas is dismissed as politically unrealistic. "Have you lost your mind?" the engineer asks.

The anonymity issue becomes even more intense when one considers the speed at which organizations are linking their e-mail networks together in hopes of creating "virtual" corporations and accelerating the flow of vital data. Companies are hooking up with key customers and suppliers.

Suppose at the customer network, anonymous messages are permitted and even encouraged; at the supplier, they're strictly forbidden. When these two companies collaborate on a project, whose e-mail protocol should win? Ironically, the ability to communicate via e-mail may lead more to a hostile clash of values than to the desired goal of better communications. Privacy is relative; anonymity is an absolute.

So how does the Internet, the world's biggest and best e-mail network, handle this thorny issue? In fact, it is "illegal" and technically impossible to send an Internet message without a "return address," i.e., without some sort of identifying header.

Nevertheless, the Internet has become a hotbed of detailed, intimate and absolutely anonymous communications. Indeed, there is a whistle-blowers Usenet group on the Internet--a kind of forum--as well as a support group for victims of sexual abuse. Is it in the best interests of these participants to be readily identifiable? These groups depend on anonymous communications.

Market forces have created innovations for anonymity. Because there is a demand for anonymity on the Internet, there is now a supply of anonymity on the Internet. Individuals can send their messages to "remailers" that can strip out the headers containing the authentic return address.

These remailers, in turn, can send the messages on to other remailers. In other words, Internet remailers can "launder" messages on the road to their intended destinations in ways that completely obliterate their origins.

A company that's on the Internet could use remailers to send e-mail or post messages anonymously, but there are no known Fortune 500 companies that provide such remailers internally. Mainly they are provided, in the communal spirit of the Internet, by individuals who typically charge nothing and purge any trace of a message's origin.

Essentially, the rise of e-mail is forcing companies to decide explicitly what kind of values they want their networks to embody. Should employees be allowed or encouraged to send anonymous e-mail? Or should it be strictly forbidden? Or is there a middle way that creates bulletin boards or other e-mail "Democracy Walls" where individuals can safely post their comments?

Whatever the answer to these questions, more and more organizations are painfully becoming aware that their new networks can raise cultural tensions just as easily as they create economic efficiencies.

Los Angeles Times Articles