Limits & Ethics

As an enterprise e-mail administrator, I’m regularly asked about the size of attachments that our users can send.  I often give the answer as “that depends” (more on this below).

Less frequently, after giving my answer, I’m asked “can that be changed?”  And much less frequently, though still several times in my career “alright, that’s officially the limit, but can it be changed for me?”

The answer to the original question – how big of an attachment can I send – of course depends on who the message is being sent to and what restrictions are placed on their e-mail environment.  So, the main reason that I give for not increasing the limit is that our limit is fairly standard – if not generous – and as such, raising our limit most likely won’t help get your large file through to the recipient.

In my current environment, the limit is imposed by our service provider, so I can’t raise it.  In environments where I can raise, I inevitably get the question “Well, since we can raise it, why don’t we, just in case the recipient has a larger limit as well?”  This is usually where I fight the urge to shake my head and walk away.  And I have to ask “just because we can do it, should we do it?”

Eric Mann wrote a post the other day about Ethics in Software Development where he asked that same question, quoting one of my favorite Jurassic Park lines.  Eric’s post is specifically about the ethical quandary of releasing a tool that, though it has good intentions, is very likely to be used for less than ethical and, very likely, illegal purposes.

While my question of whether or not to raise the e-mail attachment limit isn’t quite in the same ballpark as Eric’s dilema, it is still questions of ethics – one similar to those that we in IT professions face on a very regular basis.  We cannot take these decisions lightly.  Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean that we should do it.

It may seem trivial to just raise the limit (if we are able), but what happens if we all, as e-mail administrators, continue to raise our limits – or abolish the limit all together?  Eventually we will all run into other problems, such as resource limitations and degradation of service, including delays in e-mail delivery as our mail servers churn through very large messages.  Which do you think users will complain about more – not being able to send a 50MB attachment, or waiting two hours to receive a message?  I know, I know – whichever is affecting them right at this moment.

I’m reminded of a quote from another of my favorite movies:

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.
-Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire

3 comments to Limits & Ethics

  1. Phil says:

    Right after I published this, I read Bob Dunn’s post about how he feels we need to be careful when creating lists like “The Top 10 Must Have WordPress Plugins” ( He asserts that there is no way that we can know all of the variables around any particular site – this, of course, affects whether or not the plugins would be any good for the site in question. Yet, an unsuspecting new WordPress user might think that they absolutely have to have all of these plugins in order to have a quality site.

    Again, not in the same ball park as Eric’s problem, but I would contend that it is still a question of ethics in how we name our posts. We may be trying to get better organic search traffic, but it could incorrectly sway someone who is setting up their new site.

  2. Eric Mann says:

    Great point, particularly around email. Often I have a client who needs large files sent over email. In one case (with a political candidate) this amounted to MBs and MBs of data – over a heavily restricted free account through their ISP. We were limited to 5 attachments at a time, each no larger than 2MB, amounting to a total of no more than 5MB. It was a pain.

    We resorted to meeting in a local Starbucks so I could physically hand off a USB instead.

    I do understand the reason for limits, though. Another client on the same ISP came to me a few months later and asked for help emailing a ripped DVD …

    • Phil says:

      I’ll just leave this right here…

      That is an incredibly low limit by today’s standards, but it is a free provider, but I find that ISP e-mail accounts tend to be the strictest.

      In this realm, there are so many alternatives, as XKCD points out – even more these days with the proliferation of clouded services. Yet the question is still asked on a regular basis. Luckily for me, it user comes down to user education and I don’t have to be faced with “well, why don’t I just go ahead and raise it.”

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