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Frequently Asked Questions
Last updated: 2023-01-25
Note: you are looking at the general FAQ. For technical questions, see the Tech FAQ.
What do you mean by claiming to be an ethical service provider?
Primo, by saying that we are an ethical provider, we wish to highlight the fact that there is no conflict of interest between the service provider (us) and users of our service (you). We operate under the simplest, clearest and most ethical business model, wherein users directly pay for the service they use. This eliminates the moral hazard – and perverse incentives – inherent in other business models that provide a "free" service, but rely on profiling and selling user data to the highest bidder (ad tech), or subsidizing the cost of providing the service from other (profitable) lines of business (anti-competitive behaviour).
Secundo, we say this to emphasize that we take your privacy seriously. This goes hand in hand with the above: we simply have no incentive to profile our users, and are, as a result, not interested in any message traffic (investigations of unlawful activity and abuse notwithstanding). Also worth mentioning the fact that we operate on EU territory outside of US jurisdiction, so we cannot be forced to partake in global mass surveillance programmes carried out on behalf of US government agencies.
What other reasons do you have for running this service?
We believe the current concentration of the majority of email accounts into a few gigantic providers (unethical by our standards) is unhealthy and bad for the email ecosystem as well as the wider Internet community. The more email traffic is concentrated between a couple providers run by Big Tech, the more vulnerable it is to "embrace and extend"-style changes to maximize hostility towards other, smaller providers. It also opens the door to indiscriminate, pervasive mass surveillance by national intelligence agencies.
While spam is (thankfully) less of a problem now than 10 years ago, it has also become harder and harder to run an independent email service — if nothing else, the big providers will often insist that anything coming from smaller, independent services is suspicious (and may even mark it as spam without further justification). To put it simply, the big email providers have gotten too big (with tens to hundreds of millions of users) and there are too few independent, smaller providers to keep them in check. Running AltMail.se is our way to hold on to our stakes. Since we host our personal email accounts here as well, we have quite some skin in the game.
Electronic mail (email) was the first runaway success of the nascent Internet, preceding even the World Wide Web. It was built entirely on open standards, as a loosely coupled system where everyone could freely participate, not just as a user, but also as a site operator. With AltMail.se, we want to prove that running an independent email service in this fashion is still possible. The alternatives are centralisation and mass surveillance that begets the erosion of democracy, coupled with a fragmentation of the electronic communications landscape into a myriad incompatible, proprietary messenger applications.
Are there any downsides of using AltMail.se?
Not all email providers are created equal. While we certainly see ourselves as having some strong sides (see our landing page for a summary), we do have certain properties and made some choices that might be perceived as downsides. We try to be transparent about them.
We do not host any webmail (see the Tech FAQ). We cater exclusively to people running real mail clients (on the desktop or mobile). If you require webmail access, you are better off looking elsewhere.
We do not support email domains other than altmail.se, and there are no clear plans to add support for hosting email under user-controlled domains. If you require servicing emails under your existing domain, you should look at other providers or host your own email. We cater exclusively to private individuals without a need for their own "vanity" domain. (Having email under their own domain is a natural requirement for a business, but we do not serve businesses, only private individuals.)
Because AltMail.se is a small, fully independent outfit with comparatively very low outbound volume, we are disadvantaged in the rigged game of email sender reputation. Even though our outgoing mail is technically correct and standards-compliant (equipped with contemporary measures such as DKIM, etc.) the oligopoly of Big Tech providers might still abuse their positions of market power by marking perfectly legitimate email we send as spam. Note that given our level of technical correctness, delivery is practically always successful (the provider of the recipient mailbox accepts our mail for delivery), but might end up in the user's Spam folder.
For recurring personal correspondence, it is usually sufficient if the other party does a "Mark as not spam" or equivalent action once, and any subsequent mail will be correctly delivered to their Inbox. This is unfortunately not something we can easily improve on our end. It is worth stressing that there is a continuous "mud-wrestling" across the massive providers: on numerous occasions, they have rejected or marked as spam innocent streams of inbound mail from their peers. Yes, we are talking about GMail binning O365 binning Yahoo binning GMail... O365 is especially notorious for binning legitimate mail from everyone, including themselves. Moral: no guarantees even if you use a Big Tech account.
What are the limits on the privacy of my account?
For a broader view, you need to understand a couple things about email privacy. The most important aspect is that email (at least as we know it today, defined by RFC 821 and its successors) is inherently insecure, and cannot be secured in a way that works reasonably well for a critical mass of users. End-to-end encryption can help in certain cases, but is prone to complexity, has severe difficulties hiding metadata, and is overall a solution we cannot in good conscience recommend to anyone.
By the way, lest you feel our privacy offering is lousy: this is right on par with most everything out there, including so called "secure" email providers. Note that the issues mentioned here apply to them all the same; what they add on top is heavy marketing and security theater. If you would assume they protect you from state-level adversaries, you would be badly mistaken. Remember: the game is about metadata (such as IP addresses, recipient addresses and such) that cannot be reasonably encrypted (for technical reasons, such as being required to actually transport the mail) while revealing incriminating facts to adversaries.
To be clear, we do not claim that we are more secure, only that we are not inherently less secure than the providers in question. If datacenter doors get kicked in and hard drives get confiscated, AltMail.se will only yield a soup of ones and zeroes, impossible to distinguish from random noise without the encryption keys of our servers and backups – but we do not placate ourselves as being more "secure" or keeping you more "private" than any responsible player in this game. Instead, we provide uncrippled, first class IMAP access to your mailbox (as all providers always should). This allows you to download your email from us every 15 minutes, and permanently delete it from our server. In that case, you leave nothing in our trust that you would not also entrust to a more "secure" provider.
In conclusion: when it comes to privacy, we do not see a way around the need to trust your own provider. And even then, you better not have to conduct any sensitive communications with someone who has an account at GMail or Yahoo, or uses Microsoft Exchange...
Perhaps the smartest attitude, in the face of confidential information, is to "assume that everything is compromised, and act accordingly." In our humble view, email is simply not an appropriate channel when there is a need for exchanging secrets between parties (potentially including the need to hide the fact of communicating in the first place). Email is simply not the right tool for that.
Who are you?
There is no legal entity behind AltMail.se just yet (remember, we are in an invite-only beta stage). For reasons we consider obvious, we cannot disclose our personal identities. This is chiefly to guarantee that our service can be run in a fully independent, ethical manner, with no hidden pressure or influence (let alone harassment or worse) against our persons. We take privacy seriously, naturally including our own!
We are old-school UNIX sysadmins and programmers, people who like simple old boring tech that just works. We abhor social media, attention-draining gadgets, abusive ad tech (is there any other kind?), the gamification of everything, and the pervasive damage to society (both online and AFK) that all these have brought about. We started AltMail.se because it was easier for us to do it than to not do it.
How long will your beta phase last?
It is hard to make predictions (especially about the future), but we project this will take several months to a couple years. Mail systems traditionally have fairly modest operational and maintenance costs, but there is a certain gap between "hosting your own email" and "commercial grade email service" that we are only gradually filling in.
To be clear: it is not the basic email service that needs more work, rather the fine-tuning of spam filters, abuse detection systems, operational maintenance procedures and such. Those take time and much traffic to pass through them for confidence to build up, and we take things slowly, in tact with a decidedly careful ramp-up of our user base. We are in no hurry; it is more important to get things right than to grow fast (or at all).
Can I retain my anonymity after your beta ends? Will you provide a free tier?
Once AltMail.se ends its beta stage, we are going to require all account holders to pay a reasonable subscription fee, in line with our policy of being an ethical provider, to cover hosting and operational expenses. There will not be a free tier; the world does not need another "free" online service.
If you are, out of anonymity concerns, unable to pay for your account in any of the conventionally supported, mainstream ways of online payments, then we are afraid you should not be using email in such an extremely privacy-sensitive context at all. Please see "What are the limits on the privacy of my account?" above.
I would hate to lose my account! How can I be sure that you will be around in 10 years?
The simple, honest answer is that you can't. But if you (and enough other people) stick around and support us by using our service (paying for it after our beta phase ends), we see no reason why we could not run this service indefinitely. It is, after all, a completely self-sustained business by design (and costs us pocket change while in beta). We are also strongly incentivised to keep the altmail.se domain with our mail exchanger up and running, given that all our personal accounts are here as well. So we are very much there in the same boat with you.
Compare this with Big Tech providers, where you might wake up any day to find yourself locked out of your account due to some "black box" oracle divining that you had violated their terms of service (when in reality you were sound asleep). Then you are left with no customer service and no appeals process so best of luck to you, sucks to be you.
If you need to guarantee the stability of your email account for life, the only course of action we can recommend is to register your own domain and host your own email. See, we did exactly this for ourselves, and we're here to share it with you – how's that for a half-assed promise?
Can I contact a human behind AltMail.se?
Absolutely, see our contact info.