Decouple Yourself From Your Email Provider, Before It's Too Late.


Email providers like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and the email services included with Internet Service Providers make it easy to get your own identity on the internet. Generally, this is a good thing; everyone needs an email address nowadays. We use email to identify ourselves to most websites and apps, and so the more connected we get, the more essential our email addresses become.

What's The Problem?

The more ubiquitous email becomes though, the more power our providers have over us. Maybe right now it seems like everything is fine: you're happy with your email provider, and they're glad to have you. But can we guarantee that's going to be true forever?

Here's a question most people don't ask. “What would happen if I suddenly had zero access to my main email account?”

Let's go through some ideas as a thought experiment. Any website you had set up with email-based login confirmation will become unusable to you as soon as you need to reconfirm. This practice is becoming less common, but it still exists. You might need to reconfirm when logging in on a new device, at a new location, or just because the website decided, “why not?”

You'll still be able to use most websites at first, at least until you forget or need to change your password. The vast majority of sites require email verification for that sort of change, so now, if you don't know the password, that account is effectively locked.

All emails sent to that account are now, best case, being sent to a black hole, or worse case being delivered to someone else who happens to pick up the address after you, if the provider allows email re-use.

What happens if your provider goes out of business, or otherwise stops providing email services? What about if they decide that you have violated their terms of service (see examples picking on Google here and here), and therefore terminate your service without warning? When it comes to ISPs: what happens when you switch ISP? Maybe other providers have better service, you move, or the ISP has started behaving like a malicious actor. Most of the time, once you stop paying an ISP, they won't provide you with continued email service.

Email providers have us held captive: They control our access to what has become the core of many of our online personas and resources. They know this, they know how much of a massive inconvenience it is to lose access to your core email account. They use this knowledge to keep you tied to their services, even if you don't like what they're doing.

The simple way they keep us captive is right there in your email address: their domain. When you use an email address like myname@gmail.com or prettypinkponies@aol.com, that identity explicitly ties itself to a given provider. You cannot transfer that account to a different provider, set up self-hosting, and you have zero control over what happens to it.

A Solution

Thankfully, there's a relatively easy way to get around this risk. Unfortunately, it does cost some money. If you register a personal domain, you can set up an email address for that custom domain. At the most basic level, a lot of registrars provide email forwarding setup. With this, you can continue using your current email provider but give out yourname@yourdomain.tld as your email address. In doing this, you cut your dependency on your email service provider in favor of only relying on something you own.

You can also take it a step further, and have separate email services for your domain, though that generally costs more money. For example, Fastmail is a popular service which gives you email hosting with your domain plus 25 gigs of storage for $5/user/month, which is a pretty decent deal. Google has G Suite, which gets you Gmail integration plus 30 gigs of Drive space for $6/user/month. If you don't mind the fact that it's a Google product, it's a good option.

What's important is that your online identity can't be cut off at the whim of some corporation. Regardless of which of the options you go for, using a custom domain for email gives you an insane amount of flexibility. With email forwarding, if you want to switch providers, it's as simple as changing the forwarding address with your registrar. If you use a service like Fastmail or G Suite, the process is slightly more involved, but mainly consists of modifying some DNS records.

Domains are also reasonably easily transferred between registrars. So, if you don't like your first registrar, you can easily switch. All you need to do is make sure the domain gets properly configured for email with your new registrar.