What is an 'alternative' email service?
What we refer to as 'Commercial' email services we're talking about Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and most of the email services you get from your internet service provider.
- are commercially-owned, with business models that can include selling your data
- host your email on server farms (huge complexes full of thousands of servers) which are usually scattered all over the world.
'Alternative' email services include Riseup, Autistice, Espiv, Posteo, Greenhost, and others like them.
- are owned and managed by groups that do not sell your data.
- are designed to give you more control over your data - in this case, through giving the user the opportunity to create anonymous accounts, and by encouraging the use end-to-end encryption
Why use an alternative?
Commercial 'free' email accounts are not actually free
The companies who offer you 'free' commercial email - Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail, for example - operate on a for-profit basis.
If the service itself is free, how does the company make money? Normally, by collecting, storing and analysing as much of your data as possible, and either selling the data itself or, if the company has its own advertising business (like Google), by selling targeted advertising. In other words, the service might be free, but you might be "paying" more than your realise in terms of your privacy and autonomy.
You "agree" to the terms and conditions... but do you really?
When you create a new email account, you are asked to agree to the Terms of Service of the email provider. In click clicking 'I agree', we are entrusting our email provider with a lot of personal information - think about all the things that go through your inbox on a daily basis.
The alternative email providers below operate under a set of principles that prioritise the user's privacy. This can include not making money from user data; giving the user the opportunity to set up an 'Anonymous' account; and promoting, where possible, end-to-end encryption.
Questions to ask:
- Who would you prefer to trust with your data?
Do you really want to put it in the hands of a company that's going to use it to make money?
- Where is the company based?
Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail are all services from companies who have their headquarter in the U.S. As such, your email data will fall under U.S. laws.
- What is the minimum data needed for an email to function properly and securely?
Be aware that some commercial email providers will collect and store more data than they actually need for the email service to function - for example, by not allowing anonymous accounts, and by requiring you to register your mobile phone number or another pre-existing email account.
Alternative email services: a selection
Paid-for service? No, the service is free.
Encryption? Yes, HTTPS. Riseup also encrypts all stored data.
Increased privacy? Yes: Riseup is a community-driven, advertisement-free email provider which does not make money out of user data. The service allows you to create an anonymous email account, and Riseup does not log unique digital traces like your IP address, which could identify your computer or identity. Riseup also does not share or disclose user data with any third parties.
Limitations: Mailbox space is limited.
Note: To set up an account, you'll need to either request one here, or get invite codes from existing users you know.
Note: Riseup is publicly associated with political activity, and using the service can associate you with their politics.
Owned and managed by: Riseup, a community of individuals dedicated to defending human rights
Paid-for service? No, the service is free.
Encryption? Yes, HTTPS. Espiv also encrypts all stored data.
Increased Privacy? Yes. Like Riseup, Espiv is a community-driven, advertisement-free email provider which does not make money out of user data. Espiv does not log unique digital traces like your IP address, which could identify your computer or identity. Espiv also does not share or disclose user data with any third parties.
Note: You will need to ask them for an email account through this contact form and they will require a pre-existing email account.
Owned and managed by: an autonomous collective of developers and activists in Greece
Encryption? Yes, HTTPS. Posteo also provides the option to encrypt all stored data.
Increased Privacy? Yes. Posteo does not log unique digital traces like your IP address, which could identify your computer or identity. the service also deletes your payment details, like your credit card number, after the payment has been processed. It also offers you the option not to pay online at all, if you would prefer to hand-deliver the payment to their Berlin office.
Owned and managed by: Posteo
Hosting your own email
Most email is hosted on servers owned and run by companies (or collectives like Riseup or Espiv), but it's possible for you to host your own email server. This would give you ultimate control over how and where your email is stored, and who has access to your data.
Be aware though that running your own email server is a not an easy thing to do. You run the risk of misconfiguration your mail server, making you vulnerable to hacking attacks, a massive amount of spam, or inadvertently becoming a spambot yourself.
Hosting your own email requires a high degree of technical skill and an advanced knowledge of the ins and outs of server functioning. As such, it's is not an option for everyone.
Tools to increase your privacy and security
GPG is an end-to-end encryption protocol that encrypts the content of your emails on your personal devices before sending the emails to the mail server of your email service provider.
Watch our animation series Decrypting Encryption for more on how GPG works.
To get started with GPG, see our toolkit Security-in-a-Box
Tor: Anonymise your connections
Running your email over Tor will hide metadata like your location from your email provider. Be aware though that use of Tor can raise a red flag, so it might not always be the best option for you. If you decide to try it out, go to Security in-a-box for installation instructions and advice:
Tor for Windows
Tactical Tech's Security in-a-box toolkit:
Keep your online communication private