Employees at Amazon.com, the popular Internet bookseller,
received in their e-mail a directive from senior management that
struck some as Orwellian.
As part of an event that the Seattle-based company designated
"Sweep and Keep," employees were instructed to purge, among other
things, e-mail messages that were no longer required for business or
not subject to legal records requirements. Free lattes would be
dispensed in the cafeteria to those who complied immediately, the
This Amazon "document retention" policy, which requires employees
to expunge electronic files regularly, was followed a few weeks
with guidelines for "document creation."
"Quite simply put, there are some communications that should not
be expressed in written form," the Oct. 20 memo stated. "Sorry, no
lattes this time!"
Never mind monopoly power in the marketplace; the real lesson
corporate America is taking away from the Microsoft antitrust trial
is that old e-mail can be a mine field of legal liability, not to
mention a source of public embarrassment.
In the high-profile court battle between the Justice Department
and Microsoft, e-mail has emerged as the star witness -- a fact that
appears to be giving pause to corporate executives accustomed to
clicking "send" without a second thought.
"I love e-mail," said Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and chief
executive. "I think it is changing the world. The problem is
somebody can take it out of context and use it against you, and we
have to guard against that."
Amazon, like many companies, had embraced e-mail as the preferred
way to communicate about business matters. Instant, convenient and
at least putatively private, it allows the lowliest employee to
discourse with the most exalted. And it provokes spontaneous, if not
always eloquent, brainstorming among colleagues who might otherwise
keep their thoughts to themselves.
Now, Amazon, which to many people symbolizes a progressive
Internet culture, is among the growing ranks of companies that are
imposing new restrictions on e-mail.
Unlike earlier policies prohibiting abusive or harassing
electronic messages, the new rules tend to curb types of expression
that have long been deemed acceptable business discourse. And when
such exchanges must take place in writing, the prevailing philosophy
would have them expunged as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.
This backlash underscores a paradox of the information age: While
instantaneous electronic communication often helps increase
productivity and innovation, the privacy of workplace correspondence
and accountability for what is written are growing concerns for many
Often, e-mail is more a conversation that happens to be written
down than an actual letter, and it is often more revealing than
either. It has thrived largely because of the assumption -- some
would call it the illusion -- that the rapid-fire confessional
exchanges that e-mail seems to encourage will never be divorced from
But that is often not the case in legal disputes, where e-mail is
increasingly being treated as the ultimate window into the true
thoughts of executives and the inner workings of an enterprise.
Among Microsoft trial's electronic highlights: The company
chairman, Bill Gates, in a sworn deposition, flatly contradicts his
e-mail statements, and an e-mail from James Barksdale, chief
executive of the Netscape, to America Online's chairman, Steve Case,
in which he refers to Case as "Franklin D." and himself as "Joseph
Stalin" in a strained -- and ultimately embarrassing -- allusion to
the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in World War