2001: Email misdemeanours

Email turned 30 in 2001, but despite moving rapidly towards middle age, it still gets misused for lewd and lascivious purposes. And someone always pays
Written by Wendy McAuliffe on

In 2001, email got one step closer to middle age as it hit 30 years old. Email has become a vital tool for business communication, but a series of blunders throughout the year exposed the fact that employees using the medium can still be woefully adolescent.

The first email was sent 30 years ago by the American engineer Ray Tomlinson -- it was all in upper case, and contained 200 lines of code. But little did Tomlinson know that 30 years later, his invention would be used for the distribution of lewd and offensive messages among corporate networks, leading to disciplinary action and serious job losses.

Five days into the new year, a smutty Bart Simpson email resulted in the sacking of ten employees at the insurance company Royal and Sun Alliance, and the suspension of a further 75 staff. The offending emails featured a doctored picture of the cartoon character Bart Simpson in a sexual clinch. The email was circulated by as many as 100 of the Liverpool branch's 3,000 staff. The whistle was blown when the "lewd email" leaked outside of the company's internal network.

Company policy typically bans the circulation of pornography or emails that could be considered sexist, racist or defamatory. But in March, a hate email case threatened to embroil one of the oldest institutions in Britain. Two Oxford University students were accused of sending racist emails to an Asian fellow student, telling him that he should leave the college and get a job at McDonalds. One of the emails warned the victim, Nadeem Ahmed, that he was being watched and that the authors knew where he lived. Following emails contained pornographic images, and made obscene references to his wife and mother. Oxford University was left facing charges of institutional racism.

A matter of days later, a London law firm was reprimanded for circulating a hoax email announcing the murder of a company secretary. The internal memo asked staff at Herbert Smith to note that secretary Natalie Francisco would not be at work on 16 March because she had been murdered. Within days, the email had been leaked to thousands of friends and colleagues for its complete lack of remorse. A trainee solicitor based in the Hong Kong office admitted to concocting the hoax and faced disciplinary action along with three other trainees, accused of defaming the firm's name.

But the global exposure was not enough to shock other law firms into tightening up their email policies. In September, one of the oldest law firms in London was accused of circulating a racist and sexist email about a female member of staff. Two senior lawyers at Charles Russell used email to discuss a 32-year-old black secretary a matter of hours after she handed in her letter of resignation. The employee in question stumbled upon an email from lawyer Adam Downey to partner Clive Hopwell saying, "Can we go for a real fit busty blonde this time? She can't be any more trouble and at least it would provide some entertainment!" The case is due to appear before a tribunal next year, at which the alleged victim could claim unlimited damages.

Men are the main offenders of misusing email at work, according to a survey in August. Over a third of all men surveyed by the email marketing company edesigns.co.uk admitted to spending more than 40 minutes of each working day flirting or gossiping via email. Their female counterparts were more cautious about using email to flirt, but over a third owned up to using email for more than two hours a week to plan their weekends and social lives.

But women could not dodge the blame for circulating an email that pulled the rug from under the 2001 Eastenders cliffhanger. Hours before 20 million viewers tuned in to find out the mystery figure behind the gun that shot Phil Mitchell, an email was forwarded to thousands of computer users naming ex-girlfriend Lisa Shaw as the assailant. The missive -- with the enticing subject line, "The truth, only read if you wanna know who shot Phil", was thought to have originated from the BBC production team.

See ZDNet UK's Christmas & New Year Special for our look at the tech world in 2001, and what's coming up in 2002, plus a shopping guide with reviewers' best buys.

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