We are all trained to archive every email we receive. After all, we basically have infinite storage space, and we can just find all the emails we need with a quick search, right? Sounds logical. But that̵
Gmail promised endless storage, but it fell short
Whether you use Gmail or not, it is important to understand that the idea of never deleting emails became widely popular with Gmail. Before that, people generally deleted their emails regularly. You had to delete them to free up space so that you could receive more emails.
Gmail was earth-shaking when it launched in 2004. Google’s email service provided a whopping 1 GB of free email storage. That was ashamed of its competitors: the free version of Microsoft Hotmail at the time only offered a small 2 MB. Yes, Gmail launched with 500 times the free storage space of Microsoft’s email service. It’s no wonder Gmail became so popular. The competitors struggled to keep up, but even they added a lot more storage space.
Google kept adding storage for free. In 2005, when Gmail existed for a year, Gmail’s free storage space doubled to 2 GB. Georges Harik, Gmail’s product manager, said it was right to give people more space forever.
Why delete emails when Google will keep giving you more and more storage space until the end of time? As Harik pointed out, as technology advances, storage is getting cheaper for Google and everyone else. Sounds great … but Google has changed its mind.
Free Google account storage stopped in 2013
In 2013, Google set a limit of 15 GB of storage space for a free Google account. That Google account storage is aggregated across all Google services: Gmail, Google Drive and Google Photos. If you store 10 GB of files, you only have 5 GB left for emails.
Google hasn’t added free storage since then. Google is even taking away the free storage space it offers for photos.
If you planned on never deleting emails and hoped Google will keep increasing your account’s storage, it didn’t work out. Your email account has been slowly filling up for the past seven or eight years.
Why pay money to save useless emails?
Here’s the thing: Google sells storage as a subscription as part of Google One. Paying a monthly subscription fee gives you a lot more space to store your emails.
Google isn’t the only company that charges extra for storage. Microsoft Outlook.com offers 15 GB of free storage, increased to 50 GB if you are a paid Microsoft 365 subscriber. Apple iCloud email uses your iCloud storage, and Apple famously offers just a small 5 GB of free storage for all your device backups and iCloud data.
That’s why companies encourage you never to delete emails. They make a profit when your email account gets full and you have to pay for a subscription to save everything.
It’s kind of like a company that encourages you to never give away your useless junk. Of course, they want you to keep it – they make a profit if you have to pay to store it forever.
Yes, those emails take up a lot of space
But how much space do emails actually take up? Aren’t they small? They are just text, right?
If you actually have gigabytes of emails in your account, you know that’s not entirely true.
Of course, individual emails are small, but they add up. If your email account is full, you will have a lot of space used by useless emails. All those newsletters, notifications, alerts, and other junk you’ve received over the years probably take up quite a bit of space – when you add them up.
For example, if you are using Gmail, the Google One Storage page will show you how much space is being used by your Gmail emails.
You don’t need most, and searching isn’t ideal
How often do you go back to search or view your old emails? Sure, you probably have some important emails you want to keep, but most of them probably aren’t important at all. You don’t need them, and you never would have noticed if you had clicked “Delete” instead of “Archive” on that useless email newsletter.
What’s worse, if you have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of emails, it will be more difficult to search for the emails you care about. “Archive everything and use search to find what you care about” becomes difficult when you have 200,000 emails lying around trying to find that one important email from ten years ago.
Delete instead of archive and keep only what you care about
Instead of archiving every email you receive, you can delete the emails that don’t interest you. You free up space and you don’t have to pay to save useless emails.
If an email is important, file it – or consider putting it in a folder or label to make it easier to find in the future. But even if you only archive the emails you care about (instead of all the emails), you’re a lot better off.
In the US, emails are “abandoned” after 180 days
Those are all good arguments for cleaning up your email account, even if you’re not really concerned about email privacy. But if you are concerned about privacy, know this:
In the US, emails are considered “abandoned” after 180 days. The government can view these emails without warrant thanks to the Electronic Communications Protection Act, a law passed in 1986 when electronic communications were very different.
As Wired noted in 2013, “It is more than ridiculous that email (but not email) is not covered by privacy laws.”
Attempts have been made to resolve this loophole and require the government to obtain a warrant before accessing emails that are more than 180 days old. The most notable attempt was in 2016, when the Email Privacy Act was passed unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives and then died in the Senate. The law will be in effect from January 2021.
So if you store a lot of old emails in an online account, keep this in mind.
Time to delete those old useless emails
Now you just need to start cleaning up all those archived emails you’ve been dragging around for a decade or more.
How you do this depends on what kind of emails are taking up space. For example, if you regularly receive newsletters from email@example.com and you have them archived, search your emails for “firstname.lastname@example.org” and delete all messages from that sender.
Here are some tips to free up space in Gmail.
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