The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asked for public comment on a Petition for Rulemaking filed by a consumer seeking to require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement “e-mail address portability,” which would require ISPs to port (i.e., forward automatically) e-mail traffic and other stored data from a former customer’s e-mail account to the customer’s new e-mail address and provider. The Petition requests that the porting obligation extend for six months after the customer terminates service with his or her ISP.

The petitioner filed this request after her ISP (AOL) purportedly cancelled her account without sufficient notice. The petitioner stated that she had no opportunity to notify personal and business contacts, obtain address book information associated with the account, or access any other stored information. According to the petitioner, the way in which her ISP closed the account had serious adverse consequences for her business and personal interests. The petitioner also criticized the terms of service used by some ISPs and e-mail providers, which allow them to terminate services at their discretion and at any time.

The Petition argues that the same considerations behind local telephone number portability should apply to e-mail address portability. According to the Petition, many consumers and businesses rely on e-mail to the same degree that they rely on telephone numbers for communications purposes, making the sudden loss of an e-mail address difficult to overcome. The Petition also contends that consumers and businesses may be reluctant to switch e-mail service providers because doing so risks having some incoming messages delivered to old, terminated e-mail addresses.

Although the Petition refers specifically to ISPs, the potential scope of any e-mail address portability regime could be broader. For example, companies that provide web-based messaging services, whether through e-mail, instant messaging, message boards, or other formats, could potentially fall within the reach of such regulations, depending on how they are drafted, even if they technically are not ISPs. In addition, any proposed regulations could potentially extend to employers offering “internal” e-mail addresses that are used for business purposes.

The FCC has in the past limited its regulation of ISPs. Although the FCC’s rules required it to place the Petition on public notice and provide interested parties an opportunity to comment, the rules do not require that the agency act on the Petition within a specified time frame. The FCC’s stance on this Petition and the scope of regulation, if any, remains unclear. Comments opposing or supporting the Petition are due by October 26, with replies due by November 26, 2007.