As unique identifiers that we carry for years if not decades, email addresses have become an intrinsic part of our identities – but what happens when an Internet service provider (ISP) decides to stop offering email services altogether?

This was the dilemma Bill Fisher and his wife faced recently as Internode – the long-term ISP whose email services they had happily used for years – began winding down its email servers and in September prompted customers to migrate to paid Australian webmail provider The Messaging Company (TMC) as an alternative.

Internode parent company TPG Telecom – which owns Internode as well as erstwhile ISPs iiNet and Westnet – this year shut down iiNet’s Grapevine, nCable and Octa4 email services and advised users to download copies of “any important emails they wish to keep” before the services were shut down.

The change “will help us focus on creating better experiences for our core [Internet and mobile] products,” TPG said of the Internode shutdown while promising to pay for 12 months of TMC service – and warning that stored messages will become inaccessible after unmigrated email addresses are deleted after 30 November.

The TMC migration was meant to retain Internode email addresses – enabling them to remain connected to family, friends, and information resources such as hobby and support email groups – yet after making the switch, Fisher told Information Age, he’s not sure everything has gone as smoothly as Internode made out.

That’s because Internode had allowed members to use both the and domains – but once his email address moved to TMC, Fisher explained, “there is some doubt as to what has happened to emails from my correspondents who use the abbreviated forms”.

“I know some people have sent me emails which I have not received.”

He’s not the only one: “Large numbers of people are having trouble with their email addresses, including many with limited IT skills,” explained Fisher, who retired from the technology industry 30 years ago and at least understood what was happening.

“Many customers knowing less than me were thrown by this.”

Webmail’s legacy dilemma

Once the primary gatekeepers of their customers’ Internet experiences, ISPs around the world are abandoning email services as free options from the likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft make them superfluous.

“While email has not been a significant focus for GCI, it has become increasingly complex and challenging for us to provide adequate support,” Alaskan telecommunications carrier GCI said in explaining its decision to shut down email services by mid 2024.

Yet with users often signed up to dozens or hundreds of other websites using their email address, discontinuation of those addresses can cause major issues.

“I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of accounts over the years registered with this email address that I’m potentially going to lose access to unless I log in and change them,” one “[mighty] peeved” user wrote earlier this year on Whirlpool after learning the nCable email account he had held for 21 years was about to be shut down.

“I’ve just rung them and there’s nothing I can do.”

While some companies have organised alternatives, firms like GCI have simply advised customers to “sign up for a new email address” and “[update] your primary contacts… banks, credit card vendors, friends, and family of your new email address.”

Email shutdowns have also spawned cyber criminal phishing campaigns, and created accessibility issues for many users who switched to free webmail alternatives – only to find that webmail providers are making significant changes of their own.

Gmail, for example, has committed to the January 2024 shutdown of the basic HTML version of its Gmail HTML interface – a text-only email view that is backwards compatible to web browsers that are many years old, and still relied upon by non-technical users averse to upgrading their devices or software.

Rival Yahoo made the same decision a decade ago, but Gmail’s move has raised the spectre of compatibility and accessibility issues for older web users who rely on their email and core services working in a particular way.

Text-based email systems are also important for visually impaired users that rely on screen readers to read out the contents of their pages – which becomes much harder when the contents of emails are buried in complex scripted webmail pages.

TMC promises that its design complies with WCAG 2.1 Level A and AA accessibility standards – but it’s still a change, and many users forced to adapt to new email systems are likely to struggle.

Other design restrictions – such as issues with two-factor identification support in older email clients, and anti-spam restrictions such as Outlook’s restriction on the number of email recipients – are creating problems for users who rely on mass emails to participate in groups such as book clubs, but now face social disconnectedness and isolation.

“I now move in circles of other elderly persons,” Fisher said, “[and] those less knowledgeable find it distressing having to cope with change and learn new systems.”