Why does an e-mail message display incorrectly in Webmail?

If you receive an e-mail message that does not display correctly in Webmail — in particular, if a message looks like it uses characters from the wrong language — this could be due to an incorrect "character set" specified in the message. This might be the problem even if the same message displays as expected using other mail systems.

In particular, this can happen:

A "character set" is the writable characters of a language. For example, English includes the characters "A", "B", "C", and so on, while the "Kanji" system for writing Japanese includes the characters "漢" and "字".

Our Webmail system honors the "charset" header in the original message, converts the specified "charset" to UTF-8 encoding (a universal character set that can display all characters in any language), then displays the message in that UTF-8 format.

However, if the message was actually written using a different charset than the one the message claims, you'll end up seeing unexpected and unreadable text.

For example, some versions of Outlook have a bug that makes them occasionally send e-mail messages with this incorrect header:

Content-Type: text/plain; charset="ks_c_5601-1987"

That header tells receivers that the body of the message is encoded with Korean characters. However, if the message actually uses ASCII (English) characters instead, Webmail will display the message as nonsense Korean characters instead of English.

Or, if the message is missing the "Mime-Version" header that Internet mail standards require, Webmail will ignore the "charset" header completely, garbling the message unless it's already in the UTF-8 character set.

Why we re-encode character sets

As we mentioned, our Webmail system actually re-encodes messages from various character sets into UTF-8 encoding before it displays them in the browser. This allows our Webmail system to correctly display messages from many character sets, without requiring you to change the encoding setting of your Web browser to read them. This avoids the traditional problems of garbled messages from different character sets, as long as the message "charset" header is correct.

The only drawback to this system is that you can't "fix" garbled messages by changing your browser's character set "encoding" settings while viewing the UTF-8 message.

Solutions and workarounds

The proper solution to this problem is make sure the sending mail program includes the correct "charset" header in the original message. If it doesn't, it's a bug, and the message will not display correctly on many systems.

In the meantime, you can see the raw, unconverted e-mail message using a simple workaround. Click on the message to view it within Webmail, then click the "View Source" link at the top of the message on the right-hand side of the page. A pop-up window will display the raw source of the message. You can then try to change your browser settings for that pop-up window to use different encodings until you find the actual correct encoding for the message (you may have to try several). Of course, if the message was written in a language (or character set) that you can't read, then this workaround won't help, unfortunately.

Full headers

If you are encountering this e-mail problem and would like us to take a look at a particular message, be sure to include the full headers of the e-mail message.