Thursday, April 10, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #2 - forwarding blind copy e-mail

One question that constantly arises is, when is it appropriate to forward a third party e-mail without the permission of the original sender?

There are several different ways that forwarded e-mail can cross into the territory of Lashon ha-ra (evil speech / gossip). It’s obvious that negative gossip would be problematic, as would tale bearing (passing along comments that the speaker did not intend others to hear) but even when the forwarded item is complimentary, this constitutes what is called Avak Lashon ha-ra (literally, the “dust” of evil speech).

The Jewish Ethicist weighs in on this topic – take a look at it below and let me know what you think…

Is it unethical to send a "bcc" of an e-mail? I'm worried that this could be deceptive.

A. While the ethics and etiquette of e-mail are still evolving, the basic principles of thoughtful behavior are always applicable.

For the e-mail uninitiated, "bcc" stands for "blind carbon copy." Once upon a time, copies of correspondence were made by putting two or three sheets of paper in the typewriter with a sheet or two of carbon paper sandwiched in between. Usually the original stated "cc to" indicating that carbon copies were being sent to other individuals; occasionally a "blind" carbon copy was made and the recipient was not informed. Today our e-mail programs do the same thing by sending a copy of an electronic letter to the "bcc" recipient without the knowledge of the original recipient.

There are many reasons we might want to keep the additional recipient hidden, some of them good and others not so good.

A not-so-good reason for this is when you conceal the other recipient because you know the addressee would not want the message known. The message you send generally reveals some private information about the recipient and the nature of your relationship, and if recipients want this information kept private their wishes should be respected. If you feel you have a very good reason to disclose the information, then at the very least the recipients should be informed that the content is known, by making the copy a "cc" instead of a "bcc".

The problem is far worse when the message you send contains a copy of the letter you originally received -- the usual case in the world of e-mail. Letters you receive should generally be kept in the strictest confidence, and Jewish law protects them in a variety of ways. Revealing the content of a letter may be considered a form of gossip; in addition, the ancient decree of Rabbenu Gershom prohibits reading someone else's mail without their permission. (This should remind us that forwarding e-mails can also be problematic.)

However, there are some valid reasons to take advantage of the bcc feature. One good reason to keep someone hidden is to protect his own privacy. Using the "cc" line not only reveals that the letter was sent to others, it also discloses their identity as well as their e-mail address. This can be ethically problematic, as demonstrated by the following true story:

Not long ago there was a very unfortunate incident in which an individual who ran a small-scale meeting service (shadchan) wanted to send a message to all of her clients. She wrote a message and put each one on the "cc" list. Being a neophyte in the new-fangled world of e-mail, she probably didn't realize that this would disclose the identities of her customers. Many felt significant embarrassment at having it widely known that they were using this person's services. Using the bcc would have saved his customers from this discomfort and the business from suffering significant ill will.

In other cases, people don't mind having their identities revealed but they don't want to go the extra step and have their e-mail addresses publicized, since this can lead to unwanted mail, which may be annoying, offensive, or even threatening.

Another possibility is that the "cc" is being sent to an innocuous individual, but the recipient doesn't know that the recipient of the copy is trustworthy. Sending an ordinary "cc" may cause the recipient unnecessary worry that confidence has been breached. For example, on some sites queries sent to the Jewish Ethicist are first received by the host site, which then forwards them to me. When I reply to the questioner, I often send a copy of my answer to the representative of the host site. (This is a courtesy because these representatives are often extremely curious to know how I will respond.) This doesn't breach any confidence, because that person has already seen the letter. But if the letter had a cc, the recipient would be understandably concerned, because he or she probably doesn't know that the other recipient is already in the loop. So I generally use a bcc for these replies.

In these three cases, it is definitely appropriate to use a "bcc" rather than a "cc". But we may still encounter the problem mentioned above: the recipient may be misled into thinking the communication is private. There are two solutions to this problem:

1. Mention in the body of the letter that a copy is being sent to another individual. Perhaps in the future I will add to my replies the line, "I'm sending a copy of this reply to the editor of the host website."

2. Avoid shortcuts. Instead of sending the exact copy of the letter with a bcc, prepare a sanitized copy that eliminates any problematic details, and send it as a separate e-mail to someone who needs to know about the correspondence but doesn't need to know the identity of the correspondent.

There are many reasons that your recipient might not want details of your correspondence to be known. Perhaps the personal details revealed by your letter are unflattering; perhaps they are confidential. Even positive information can have negative consequences if it is too widely known. The book of Proverbs tells us, "When someone blesses his friend in a loud voice early in the morning, it is considered like a curse" (Proverbs 27:14).

Therefore, careful thought is needed before routinely forwarding e-mail or sending copies. At the very least the recipient should be informed about the disclosure, except in the cases we mentioned where the message isn't really private or when this disclosure could cause unjustified worry. Even in these cases we can often find better solutions than the bcc, which should be used sparingly.

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