Why does my email not work at the library?
April 30, 2018 7:28 PM   Subscribe

Using both Polymail on Mac and Microsoft Live Email on Windows, I've noticed that emails don't get sent or received when I'm at my local libraries (I go through 3 different ones). They work fine at home or at another wifi connection. What gives?

So I cycle between 3 different libraries in my area that all have different ways of connecting online:

- One (DL) involves getting a password and username from a central computer; when you want to connect, you need to get a Javascript popup to key those details in

- One (CL) involves connecting, a website being open, and clicking on a box to connect

- One (SL) also involves connecting to a specific website, but there's a bit more of a form to fill in (though I've found that you can omit the form and still connect.

In CL my email apps still work; in SL or DL neither app works reliably. If I go to webmail (or anything else browser-based) it works fine, but my email apps just don't update.

If it's important, SL and DL logins only trigger if you try to go to a http:// site; if you try to go to an https:// site first, like Mefi, you're told your connection is not secure. (These sites work properly once I get to log in.) I don't remember if CL does the same. This may be why my email apps don't work - but I've tried setting it up for unsecure connections and that doesn't fix the problem.

Should I switch to different email apps? (I use the Windows computer to travel nowadays, so a Windows app would be best, but I did try setting up Thunderbird while at SL and couldn't get it to work.). I check 4 accounts: 1 Gmail, 1 Google App, 2 that are hosted on their own servers and where trying to redirect them to my Gmail is more of a hassle than it's worth. I go to libraries to do my work as it's free and nearby, but if I can't access my emails then my work is compromised.

(Weirdly, on my iPhone I use the Edison email app and there's no problems there)

I don't have any special firewalls set up, which makes me think there's something going on with how the libraries have set up their Internet, but there's not a lot I can do on that end. Anything I can do on mine?
posted by divabat to Computers & Internet (9 answers total)
Weird. I have the same problem at my local library. I just use my phone to connect.
posted by Che boludo! at 7:35 PM on April 30, 2018

There are probably a few VPN/remote desktop ways to get around it, but they would probably come up against the same problem, which is that the library sounds like it's blocking everything but the standard ports for http and https - 80 and 443. Email uses some mix of 25/995/143/too many others. That's why webmail works, and your phone works - your webmail is sending emails using a server somewhere offsite, and communicating over port 443, and your phone is connecting to the internet over your data connection, and isn't using the library wifi.

Basically, webmail is going to be your best bet.
posted by sagc at 7:49 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

sagc: my phone is connected to the library wifi and works all right so I don't think that particular aspect is right.
posted by divabat at 7:58 PM on April 30, 2018

(and I'm in a similar situation, with a bunch of disparate email accounts - the only solution I've found is to bite the bullet and forward them all to my primary account. Gmail and Inbox both have decent ways of separating the various accounts.)
posted by sagc at 7:58 PM on April 30, 2018

That's prompted me to look a bit further into it - if you're using the gmail app, at least, it uses a proprietary protocol to communicate. I'm not sure what the case would be with a third-party mail app, though.
posted by sagc at 8:03 PM on April 30, 2018

What sagc said. A VPN is probably your only practical option here. It's possible to set one up so it uses port 443, which will fool a port-based firewall into thinking it's regular web traffic.

The usual caveat about commercial VPNs doesn't really apply here -- you wouldn't be using it for privacy or anything. Some shady VPN services snoop your traffic, but presumably you're using encrypted email, or else you wouldn't want to use library wifi in the first place.
posted by neckro23 at 8:15 PM on April 30, 2018

Do you use Polymail on both your computer and phone? If you're using Google's Gmail through your phone's browser (or, iirc, the Gmail app on some phone OSes), that is probably why you can connect; you're using web protocols, not email protocols.

The library is probably blocking email access to prevent being means through which people spam. This setting may be the network system vendor's default, not necessarily the library's decision. Talk to the library staff about your options. Odds are pretty good you won't be the first person to ask, and they should be able to help you with it.
posted by ardgedee at 2:19 AM on May 1, 2018

I've been in your situation, and I found a solution for my needs by running my own VPN. You may be able to get by using a commercial one, with a caveat:
  1. Some commercial VPNs work over port 443 (the one usually assigned to https, so libraries don't usually block that). I don't endorse any of the particular services, the link is the first result in my Google search, but any of them could possibly work for you. However...
  2. Some firewalls block non-https traffic over port 443 (that is, they would detect you are using a VPN and block it).
I don't know whether your library 's firewall does (2), and I think you won't either until you try a VPN that does (1). Good luck!
posted by kandinski at 3:14 AM on May 1, 2018

my phone is connected to the library wifi and works all right so I don't think that particular aspect is right.

No this is basically correct. There are a number of reasons this may not work at libraries but they all boil down to "The library has protections on their wifi so that spammers can't send a ton of mail through them." and this involves blocking access to sending out mail via applications (as opposed to the web).

Web-based email should work and many phone apps are various sorts of web-based email even if they look like they are an app (and this depends based on your phone and OS and app). If you can tether your phone's cell signal to send/receive email, this might be okay. It may be that that library can adjust their settings, so it's always worth talking with them. Otherwise your best bet in this situation is either write a lot of email and queue it for later delivery (and check incoming email on your phone) or getting a VPN service that will allow you to send/receive mail no matter how you are connected.
posted by jessamyn at 11:45 AM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

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