[linux-elitists] HTML in e-mail

Ben Finney ben@benfinney.id.au
Wed Aug 20 17:08:03 PDT 2003

On 20-Aug-2003, Bret Martin wrote:
> This is starting to bother me more and more.
> How does an elitist properly deal with HTML e-mail?

By ensuring the bother doesn't stay with themselves.  Push the problem
back to its source, via the same vector it gets to you.

> In the past, I've had some success asking people to please at least
> set their MUA to send multipart/alternative messages with a text/plain
> part, explaining that then there would at least be a human-readable
> copy of their message.

All that does is ensure they're sending their text twice, with useless
markup on one copy.  Bandwidth of email goes up again, with no
compensating benefit.

> Recently, some people have even started to resist that.

Started to?  People will *always* resist change from what they're
comfortable with.  The only permanent solution is to ensure they're no
longer comfortable with it, so they have some motivation to change.

This takes education that what they're doing is actually harmful.  Some
people don't give a crap if what they do causes harm, but most simply
don't understand that one way of email could possibly be more harmful
than another.  That education is a delicate and difficult process, and
messing up the first time usually means there will be no future
opportunities to educate that person.

> Where does this fall on the be-liberal-in-what-you-accept/
> be-conservative-in-what-you-send spectrum?

For that principle to work, the majority need to actually accept it.
Most people who send HTML email aren't even *aware* that they should be
strict in what they send.

> How do you deal with this issue, without engineering some hack to make
> it easier to read text/html parts (which seems like you're just giving
> in to the problem)

Absolutely agreed.

> and without simply refusing to communicate with
> often non-technical people who don't seem to understand the issue very
> well?

Education.  Don't threaten to not communicate, but make it an issue.  Be
very clear that they are harming their communication with many people
other than yourself; they are even harming those who aren't aware of the
issue by bloating their email and making it much easier to spread

> (As much as I would love to do that, it doesn't seem practical -- does
> that mean I'm weak? :) )

It means you're not a fanatic.  There is a fairly large middle ground
between "send me any crap you like, I won't even notice" and "if you
don't follow every RFC and read SHOULD as MUST, you go on my public

Unfortunately compromise is difficult, and requires difficult choices.
Fair compromise requires that both parties are aware there is even an
issue: education is required.

> Is HTML e-mail inherently annoying

Worse, it is inherently wasteful, needlessly complex, allows malware to
propagate easily to broken clients, and balkanises email from a medium
anyone can read to one that is unreadable to a significant proportion of
standard mail clients.

> Given that "$x considered harmful" is such a cliché, I was expecting
> to find various such manifestos against HTML e-mail, but I had trouble
> finding any.  Am I missing them?

Here's one with a good summary, and many links.

This one discusses the security threat posed by HTML email.

This one is particularly informative, but unfortunately sends a mixed
message: it proposes that MIME is a bad thing, which I disagree with
(there are many beneficial uses of MIME for email).

> And, whom do we have to blame for HTML in e-mail?

Micros~1 saw in email yet another common, standardised technology that
they could embrace and extend.  Executable mail content and HTML email
are the most successful results of that effort.

AOL, I believe, also put some effort into making "rich text" email.

But mostly, the lack of education among Internet users is to blame.
People who can't see a reason why email should not be pretty and
animated, will demand it of their vendor.  Some vendors will comply.

Again, the solution must be user education as to why these things are a
bad idea.

 \        "Consider the daffodil. And while you're doing that, I'll be |
  `\           over here, looking through your stuff."  -- Jack Handey |
_o__)                                                                  |
Ben Finney <ben@benfinney.id.au>
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