The Noti(ficati)on of Read Receipts

Our users occasionally request a read receipt function within StartMail. Read receipts allow you know if an email was read by a recipient. We’re not a fan of this function for numerous reasons, most importantly, it is considered a form of tracking. 

By default, with email providers, you only know if your recipient’s email was delivered or not. When an email cannot be delivered, you receive a bounce / undeliverable message back in your Inbox. But when a message is simply delivered, there is no message back to you and you have no way of knowing whether your email was read by the recipient.

History and standards

Some of the email standards that were defined in the earlier 70’s are still in use today. However, the read receipt function wasn’t designed at that time. Therefore, it was never part of the standard email protocol itself. In the early 2000s there were some standard proposals for this function but these never gained wide support. It is only widely available and implemented in a few major email providers such as Microsoft Outlook and Gmail for work and school.

There’s no way to know beforehand if the read receipt feature is supported by your recipient or not. This means that even if we would implement this function and you request a read receipt for an email…if your recipients email client does not support this, you wouldn’t receive any read notification. This reason alone makes the read receipt function rather unreliable.

When is it read?

There is no defined standard action for the trigger of a read receipt. 

Should the read receipt automatically send back a notification when your recipient merely clicks on the email without having actually read it? Maybe they get distracted after opening the email and forget about it. They still haven’t read it, even though you may think they have. Some think that there should be a separate button they should push after reading an email, but this requires human action and decreases the likelihood that a user would see the button and activate it. 


There’s another major issue associated with read receipts and one that is a core feature of StartMail: privacy! It’s rather invasive to automatically enable read receipts. The New York Times wrote about this twenty years ago! The privacy invasion of tracking read receipts often pops up as a topic of debate. Last year, Superhuman got negative publicity because they invasively recorded how many times you’ve opened and email. Additionally, they tracked your location when the email was opened! 

At StartMail, we value your privacy, so we don’t support sending back these read receipt notifications for incoming messages that request them. Many marketeers found their way around this by trying to load specific tracking images inside of their emails. This is one of the reasons StartMail doesn’t load external images by default. You can read more information about this feature in our support article.

Because we’re blocking this read receipt function for incoming emails, we also are against adding this feature to StartMail for your outgoing emails.

Further reading

More information on the standard proposals about read receipts from the early 2000’s can be found in RFC3885 or the Message Disposition Notification. More detailed information on this topic is also available on Wikipedia.

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