Email Providers

In this guide we investigate ethical and environmental records of 12 email providers and give our Best Buy recommendations.

We also take a closer look at email security, renewable energy claims, and shine a spotlight on web giant Google.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when choosing an email provider:

  • Is it privacy-focused? Choose a provider that takes Internet privacy seriously, such as our Best Buys, which keep your emails secure through encryption or servers in countries with stronger privacy laws.

  • Does it use renewable energy? Check if a company is specific about where its energy comes from. Bear in mind that some renewable tariffs are pretty meaningless as the company is just buying energy credits/certificates while still directly sourcing from fossil fuels or nuclear.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when choosing an email provider:

  • Does it supply the military? Does the company score an Ethical Consumer worst rating under Arms and Military Supply?

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

In this guide we have ranked the big email providers: Google (Gmail), Verizon (AOL, Yahoo – now combined as Oath) and Microsoft (Hotmail/Outlook), as well as some much smaller alternatives: Tutanota, Runbox, Kolab Now and Posteo.

If you use one of the big providers, it is free of charge, but you are in effect trading your privacy for the service, as your emails can be scanned for advertising purposes by the company (Oath) or by third-parties in the case of Google or Microsoft. Google tracks and targets you itself in many other ways, but also keeps a record of every email you’ve ever sent or received, even if you deleted them. Read more about internet privacy.

Our four alternative options were set up specifically to offer email privacy.

We have chosen to include these four out of a wider pool of privacy-focused (and many other) alternatives, as they buy their electricity from renewable energy companies. (Read more about the potential greenwash of renewable energy claims below). Out of the four alternative options included, Tutanota is the only one to offer a basic free email option, which can be upgraded, while the others have a small charge as standard.

Two privacy-focused providers we have not ranked this time are Aktivix and RiseUp, as these work on an invite/ recommendation basis, specifically for activists working in areas such as No Borders, social centres, or radical tech collectives.

We also include, in this guide, providers that only offer email to their broadband customers: the bigger players BT and TalkTalk, as well as smaller alternatives GreenNet and The Phone Co-op. Apple iCloud is only available if you have an Apple device

Edward Snowden

State Surveillance & Corporate Complicity

Several years ago the media has been published documents released by Edward Snowden, a former contractor of the National Security Agency (NSA), the communications interception specialist intelligence agency of the United States.

The Snowden files, which continue to be drip fed to news agencies such as the Guardian, reveal a number of mass surveillance programmes undertaken by the NSA and its British counterpart the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

The revelations lay bare the agencies’ ability and willingness to access information stored by the major internet companies as well as mass-intercept data from fibre optic cables which make up the backbone of global phone and internet networks.

The situation has raised a number of concerns, not least the scale of global monitoring of the communications technology sector and the extent to which private companies, including many popular consumer brands, are cooperating with intelligence agencies. The extent of corporate complicity is, however, still a matter for debate.

Many of the companies implicated in the Snowden files (or that have colluded with oppressive regimes in order to operate in those markets) have taken a public policy position opposing mass surveillance, aimed at regaining the trust of their customers.

Google boss Larry Page and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg have both denied co-operatingwith NSA surveillance programmes such as PRISM.

Page claimed:

“We have not joined any program that would give the US government or any other government direct access to our servers”. 

In a public Facebook message, Zuckerberg said:

“We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk…and if we did, we would fight it aggressively... We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe.”

Snowden has also criticised Amazon, who were notable by their absence from any of the PRISM documents, for “leaking info like a sieve”. At a recent conference Snowden explained that intelligence agencies are currently able to monitor whatever you read on the Amazon website, and asked why the company was failing to implement proper website encryption.

In August 2013 a French consumer rights group named Google and other internet companies as potential accomplices to the NSA and FBI. The prosecutor’s office in Paris has now launched a preliminary investigation into the companies’ complicity with the PRISM surveillance programme.

The issues for consumers

Anna Fielder, Chair of Privacy International, believes that the big issue for consumers is that they are no longer in control of their personal information. She says the biggest areas of contention are automated profiling and the transfer of personal data.

Automated profiling is the collection and use of pieces of information about individuals to make assumptions about them and their future behaviour. This can, of course, be done by corporations and governments alike.
 

Anna told Ethical Consumer:

“We have to ask ourselves: “Has it gone too far?” In the age of infinite data collection (so-called big data) and hundreds of databases holding personal information, disparate pieces of information can be combined and recombined to produce new information about you, more than you would know yourself. Profiling is likely to perpetuate and reinforce societal inequality, so it must be carefully monitored.”

Legal action by Privacy International and others has forced an admission from the British government of a secret policy for mass surveillance of residents’ Facebook and Google use. Britain’s top counter-terrorism official has claimed that the indiscriminate interception of these communications is legal as they are ‘external communications’ which use web-based platforms based in the US.

In regard to the transfer of your personal data to third countries, Anna told us, “as most of the mass market internet corporations are US companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.), we are talking really about transfers to the US which has very weak data protection laws. There’s an agreement between the UK and USA on data transfers – called Safe Harbor – but it’s not very safe. It’s voluntary, companies cheat and it has not been enforced properly.”

Smaller companies fighting back

However, the security services and big business are clearly not having it all their own way. The release of PRISM files represented the first step in a fight back against the surveillance state and a loss of privacy.

Several smaller alternative Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from around the world have used the information released by Snowden to lodge formal complaints against GCHQ alleging it uses malicious software to break into their networks.

The claims come from seven organisations based in six countries, including our Best Buy ISP GreenNet and popular activist ISP the Riseup Collective.

The claims are being filed with the investigatory powers tribunal (IPT), a court in London that assesses complaints about the agencies’ activities and the misuse of surveillance by government organisations.

The complaint is based on allegations that GCHQ carried out an attack, codenamed Operation Socialist, on the Belgian telecoms group Belgacom, whose customers include the European Commission and Parliament.

Cedric Knight of GreenNet said in a statement: “Our long-established network of NGOs and charities, or simply individuals who value our independent and ethical standpoint, rely on us for a level of integrity they can’t get from mainstream ISPs. Our entire modus operandi is threatened by this illegal and intrusive mass surveillance.”

What can you do

Anna from Privacy International says that the message to consumers in the short term is simple: “Switch away from US corporations providing services.... [move] away from Gmail or Hotmail to one of the very many EU-based email providers. It won’t protect you from GCHQ, but at least you have stronger data protection laws.”

However, she is also clear that there needs to be reform on a policy and legal level. “There are some quick or short term solutions that consumers can take, but ultimately data protection laws need to be strengthened, and the only way that can happen is through political will. Demand that your elected representatives take these issues seriously.”

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Renewable energy claims

In November 2018, articles based on a press release from EE (part of BT), stated that the company was ‘switching’ to renewable energy, and had “chucked coal and ousted oil”. One stated that BT was “within 4 per cent of running entirely on renewable energy”.

We couldn’t find an explanation of exactly where this energy came from. The nearest we got was several mentions of links with the company npower, which claims it offers tariffs which are “100% renewable”, despite its fuel mix being at least 70% made up of coal, gas and nuclear. Behold the magic of REGOs.

REGOs are certificates that companies can buy from renewable generators very cheaply, and then legally claim to be providing renewable energy, without building or buying any directly at all.

Npower unashamedly markets its ‘Renewable Energy for Business’ by telling its customers, “You can report zero-carbon emissions with our product without having to provide any additional evidence.”

The situation with Google and Microsoft is also confusing. Both claim to use levels of renewable energy which, when you look into it, are made up of energy credits as well as direct purchases.

However, some of the renewables used by providers are more meaningful than this – indeed, some are located in countries which have a grid powered heavily by renewables. Renewable energy statements from our best buy recommendations are as follows:

GreenNet (UK) – "Our primary servers are located in a London data centre which buys its electricity from Scottish Power Renewables, generated from British onshore and off-shore wind as well as some tidal and wave power sources ...

“We also have some additional server space in Canada and Germany. Both of these facilities are powered by renewably generated electricity as well."

Kolab Now (Switzerland) – "All energy used in the hosting and running of © Greenpeace Energy

Greenpeace in Germany were a founder member of the Greenpeace Energy cooperative, which runs Posteo’s servers and offices.

Kolab Now and Kolab Systems is green energy. Due to our geographic position in Switzerland, our energy mix is mostly hydroelectric, some solar, and a little bit of wind."

Posteo (Germany) – "Our servers and offices run 100% on green energy from Greenpeace Energy, which comes from hydro stations and wind turbines in Austria and Germany."

Runbox (Norway) – "Almost all the energy in Norway is sourced from hydroelectric power plants (97.6% in 2014), thanks to the abundance of precipitation and waterfalls in our country.

Furthermore, our email service is hosted in a data center that sources 100% of its electricity from renewable energy."

Tutanota (Germany) – "While we have asked the data centers to switch to green electricity from the start, they did not change their electricity contract immediately. Finally, possibly because our children are putting an increased pressure on companies with their Fridays For Future marches, our data centers switched to green electricity …

“Renewable energy in Germany comes from the following sources: 41% wind energy (onshore), 20% photovoltaic, 20% biomass, 8% wind energy (offshore), 7% hydrodynamic power, and 3% household refuse (recycling)."

Clicking Clean

In February 2019, Greenpeace released a report titled ‘Clicking Clean Virginia – The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley’.

The report benchmarked global internet platforms and major data centre operators on the energy they buy. Less than 5% of power generation in Virginia comes from renewable sources. Yet 70% of the world’s internet traffic is claimed to pass through just one of Virginia’s counties.

Data centre electricity usage in Virginia has been increasing by about 10% a year, and Virginia’s largest electricity provider has used this rising demand to increase investments into gas generation and supply rather than renewables, including a new pipeline to transport fracked gas 600 miles across national parks and forests.

Three companies in Greenpeace’s report are included in this guide.

Criticisms of Google and Apple led to both losing half a mark on our table under Climate Change. Google was criticised for not yet having taken steps to buy energy from renewable providers for its data centres in Virginia. Apple lost its half mark for its use of the AWS cloud platform provided by Amazon, one of the worst performing companies in the report.

Neither Apple nor Google were said to have advocated for renewables in Virginia, although they had done so elsewhere. Meanwhile, Microsoft was commended for exploring the use of battery storage rather than backup generators, and publicly supporting bills in the state that supported a transition to renewables.

Company profile

Google has grown from a start-up search engine in 1998 to one of the world’s biggest companies, with a 2018 revenue of $136 billion, 85% of which is now earned through digital ads. The verb, ‘to google’, has become an everyday part of our vocabulary, but Google’s vast network of services including Gmail, Google Analytics and Google Maps and their harvesting of personal data are of great concern.

The Irish data regulator is currently investigating whether Google is circumventing EU privacy regulations by secretly feeding advertisers the personal data of its Chrome browser users.

The ethical issues associated with ‘big tech’ are myriad and complex, not least because these companies are without any real precedent in their level of control and access to information. This makes it difficult for governments to regulate them. These companies have been allowed to eliminate nearly all of their competition. Google has actually acquired 235 other entities.

In 2018, Google and Facebook together controlled about 84% of the global digital ad market outside of China. In the smartphone market, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS together accounted for 99.9% of the global market for operating systems, and practically all mobile app sales and downloads are made through their stores.

They also control the platforms through which other products are discovered, and play a central role in the distribution of information, acting as the primary gateway to news and opinion for billions of people. See our ethical shopping guide to Broadband for some alternatives.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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