WASHINGTON - The post office forwards letters when a person moves, and telephone companies likewise forward calls. Should Internet companies be required to forward e-mails to customers who switch providers?
There is no mandate governing e-mail forwarding, and industry officials say imposing one would be costly and unnecessary. But federal regulators are looking at the issue more closely following a complaint from a former America Online customer who claims an abrupt termination of service devastated her business.
Gail Mortenson, a Washington-based freelance editor, in July filed a six-page petition with the Federal Communications Commission, which opened a 30-day public comment period that ends Oct. 26, followed by another 30-day period for replies.
Mortenson said in her complaint that she lost potential clients because they couldn't reach her, and she requested that Internet service providers, such as Time Warner Inc.'s AOL LLC, be required to forward e-mail traffic from a closed account to a new e-mail address designated by customers for at least six months.
FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said he wasn't aware of previous petitions regarding e-mail address forwarding or portability.
While mainstream consumer groups have not taken up the cause, it is starting to gain some attention in Congress.
Mortenson said a representative from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., contacted her Monday to say they were watching to see how FCC handles her complaint.
Messages left for the committee on Tuesday were not immediately returned.
Internet providers, including Time Warner Cable Inc., Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc., as well as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., which provide e-mail services, declined to comment. Several said it's the first time they've heard about the issue.
Kate Dean, executive director of the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association - a trade group whose members include AOL, Verizon and Comcast - said it will respond to Mortenson's petition, but declined to make any comments until then.
Some companies, such as Yahoo and Google, allow their e-mail users to forward incoming mail to another address. There are other companies, such as Pobox.com, that also provide an e-mail forwarding service.
Richi Jennings, an analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research, said he imagines the FCC could mandate that companies provide a free e-mail forwarding service, but doubts that it would
"Such a forwarding service would cost the service providers money in network bandwidth, server utilization and operational overhead," he wrote in an e-mail. "Service providers typically operate with low margins, relying on volume to make acceptable profit."
Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, a public interest group, said there's ample consumer competition in the market and doesn't think the FCC will do anything further.
The company closed Mortenson's account last December soon after the company learned it was actually opened by her son several years earlier when he was a young teenager. The account was still in his name although Mortenson was paying for it.
AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press that AOL is still investigating the facts of Mortenson's petition, but said it has "strict policies to prevent minors from creating paid AOL member accounts."
She also said the company doesn't believe circumstances related to Mortenson's account "present any issue of public policy."
Mortenson said she wasn't given any warning and lost personal and professional e-mails, documents, contact information and other materials associated with her AOL screen name. She said the action hurt her business at the time and is considering a civil lawsuit against the Dulles, Va.-based company.
Mortenson, who now has two e-mail accounts from different companies, said she complained numerous times to the company before filing the petition with the FCC.
"Many people think it's a very stupid idea," she said. "My reason for doing this is to get AOL's attention. They didn't care about the adverse effects this was going to have on me."