Two early internet pioneers are expressing sadness and disbelief at the fact that Shiva Ayyadurai, a self-described “world-renowned scientist, inventor, lecturer, philanthropist and entrepreneur” who says he invented “email: the electronic mail system as we know it today,” will receive a $750,000 settlement from Gawker Media, the bankrupt publisher that he sued for defamation earlier this year over a series of stories that, his lawsuit claims, “falsely trace the origin of email and call Dr. Ayyadurai a liar.”
Computer programmer Ray Tomlinson is credited by many experts and historians with developing the technology that we understand today as email. Dave Crocker, who helped write several foundational standards documents about messaging over the internet, told Gizmodo that Ayyadurai’s settlement with Gawker Media represents a victory for a version of the history of email’s development that isn’t supported by evidence. “I grew up being taught that the truth is always a sufficient defense against claims of defamation,” Crocker said upon hearing about the settlement. “Given the extensive documentation about the history of email, I’m sorry to find that that the adage no longer holds true.”
John Vittal, one of Crocker’s co-authors, seconded his frustration. Vittal is best known in the traditional history of email for being the first person to implement “reply” and “forward” functions. “What’s true is true, and you can’t hide from it, and shouldn’t be able to capitalize on thwarting it,” said Vittal. “To me, it’s a sad day.”
On Wednesday, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton announced that his defunct company would settle suits brought by Ayyadurai, the wrestler Hulk Hogan, and journalist Ashley Terrill. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has acknowledged spending $10 million to finance Hogan’s suit, as well as at least one unspecified other lawsuit, in an effort to destroy the company. Charles J. Harder, the attorney representing Hogan, also represents Ayyudurai and Terrill. As part of the settlement, Gawker Media has agreed to delete three stories from the archive of Gawker.com, including one about Ayyadurai. Univision, which purchased most of Gawker Media’s assets (including this site) out of bankruptcy in September, deleted two Gizmodo posts concerning Ayyadurai—over the objections of the editorial staff—immediately after closing the transaction. One of the targeted articles was written by this reporter, and Gizmodo Media Group executive editor John Cook was named as a defendant in Ayyadurai’s lawsuit.
On Wednesday, Ayyadurai released a statement to several outlets that said: “History will reflect that this settlement is a victory for truth.” Reached for comment by Gizmodo, Harder issued the following statement on behalf of Ayyadurai:
In 1978, a 14-year old Indian boy from Bombay, India and Newark, New Jersey, was tasked with replicating—in electronic form—a secretary’s office desk for managing the entire system of paper communications (inbox, outbox, folders, address book, attachments, etc.); the electronic system did not exist; young Shiva Ayyadurai created that system; it worked and was a huge success; he named it “email”; he obtained the first U.S. copyright to that invention, and the world’s modern system of electronic mail was born. Dr. Ayyadurai went on to receive four degrees from MIT including a Ph.D.
In the past, Ayyadurai has written that those who dispute his account are motivated by racism and war profiteering (Tomlinson worked for defense contractor Raytheon).
According to his complaint, Ayyadurai invented email while working as a Research Fellow at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 1978. He obtained the copyright in 1982. The offending Gizmodo articles made the case that “a lot of people don’t believe that Ayyadurai invented email,” and that “networked communication actually predates [his] computer program by a few years.” As Tomlinson told Gizmodo in one of the stories Ayyadurai succeeded in getting unpublished, the email formats that are so familiar today—to:, from:, etc.—were in use years before Ayyadurai “invented” them:
Electronic mail predates Ayyadurai’s ability to spell, let alone code. Ray Tomlinson is best known for having sent the first text letter between two computers on ARPANET in ‘71—y’know, an email. He also picked out the @ sign. A modest career…. Tomlinson, who began working on early inter-computer messaging when Ayyadurai was a year old, explained to us how he became well-versed with [the] linchpins of modern email years before Ayyadurai drew them up on his own:
“[We] had most of the headers needed to deliver the message (to:, cc:, etc.) as well as identifying the sender (from:) and when the message was sent (date:) and what the message was about. I chose the Latin word “re” meaning “about” for this. This apparently [was] too obscure and was replaced with “subject:”. However, “re:” is still use in the subject field to refer to the subject of the message to which the message is a reply. RFC 561 documents the headers as of 1973. Before that the standard was de facto. You could include any header you wanted in a message, but you had better use to:, cc:, etc. if you wanted the receiving program to understand.”
Tomlinson died in March of this year. His New York Times obituary began:
Raymond Tomlinson, the computer programmer who in 1971 invented email as it is known today and in the process transformed the “at” sign — @ — from a sparely used price symbol to a permanent fixture in the lives of millions of computer users around the world, died on Saturday at his home in Lincoln, Mass. He was 74.
CNN reported Tomlinson’s death with the headline, “Ray Tomlinson, the Creator of Email, Has Died.” NPR reported it under the headline, “Ray Tomlinson, Inventor of Modern Email, Dies.” The Economist’s headline was “Ray Tomlinson, Who Sent the First Email, Has Died.”
One of the Gizmodo stories reported that a 2012 Washington Post article crediting Ayyadurai with inventing email was vehemently disputed by some internet experts:
While holding a copyright might be good enough for some people, the Internet cognoscenti weren’t going to have it. When they saw that blasphemy in print, they took to Ayyadurai’s Wikipedia page, wrote letters of complaint, and debated as only geeks can. TechDirt dug up this wonderful email written by Thomas Haig [sic] to the SIGCIS email list. Randell points out that ARPANET sent the first message between two computers back in 1971.
In March 2012, the Washington Post’s ombudsman published a self-described “mea culpa” in which he wrote that Ayyadurai “should not have been called ‘inventor of e-mail’ in [a] headline” and that he hoped addressing the critics of the paper’s reporting on Ayyadurai’s claims could put “the Post back to where it needs to be, on the side of truth and accuracy.” The original story now bears the following correction: “A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the inventor of electronic messaging.”
Katie Hafner, the author of several books about the history of the internet, including the story of the ARPANET engineers who developed email, told Gizmodo that it was “of deep concern” that Ayyadurai’s lawsuit has ended in a settlement and that posts had been deleted.
“This situation is both bizarre and appalling in that here we are simply trying to get the record straight, and he’s managed to make money off claims that appear to be misleading.” Later she added, “I’m just so stunned, and shocked, and horrified.”
Thomas Haigh, an associate professor of information studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, who has also written extensively about Ayyadurai, told Gizmodo that much of the reporting on his role in the creation of email was inaccurate. “Several other bloggers had failed a basic test of journalistic practice by failing to do the easiest checks on claims made by Ayyadurai,” Haigh said.
“The Gizmodo stories were snarkier and more personal than I’d sanction, but overall provided a valuable service to readers by digging into inaccurate claims and disputing them, rather than just ignoring them. The public has a right to know when it’s being misled, and publications should be able to flag [that] without having to worry about being sued out of existence.”