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Giga-Fretting over Gmail

By Sonia Arrison
Apr 23, 2004 5:05 AM PT

What do you get when you cross a posse of anti-corporate "consumer advocates" with an innovative new e-mail service that most beta testers enjoy? Trouble, as evidenced by the recent hysterics over Google's new Gmail service.

Giga-Fretting over Gmail

Gmail is Google's new free e-mail service that provides users with a gigabyte of storage space -- about 100 times more than the storage allotment on Microsoft's Hotmail accounts. Google plans to make this idea economically feasible by scanning the content of incoming e-mail and serving content-targeted ads alongside the e-mail interface.

At first blush, the idea of an e-mail host scanning all incoming mail seems a bit offputting, but after brief consideration, most Net-savvy people should realize that spam filters already scan every message that enters their inbox. This obvious conclusion should have nipped any controversy in the bud, especially because privacy advocates have not yet made a habit of raging against spam-filtering systems.

No Nefarious Purposes

Google has said repeatedly that its automated software will scan users' e-mail solely for the purpose of serving ads and that the Gmail ad server will not collect information about which ads are served to specific users. But that didn't stop 28 "consumer-advocacy" groups from sending a letter to Google asking it to suspend Gmail's launch until their concerns are settled.

One such concern is that Gmail's scanning "establishes reduced expectations of privacy in email communications" and that "these precedents may be adopted by other companies and governments and may persist long after Google is gone."

That one is truly breathtaking. Since when is a private service that consumers can choose to ignore responsible for the policies of future companies and governments? And who today expects privacy in e-mail communications if they're not using encryption, anyway? The conventional wisdom is that e-mail is like a postcard and can be read as its packets are sent to various nodes around the Net. So what's really going on here?

Note to Google: Despite your internal slogan of "don't be evil," it appears you have been too successful and are making too much money for the self-appointed privacy advocates to leave you alone. With an impending IPO and much success under your belt, you have now, at least in leftist circles, entered the ranks of the "evil company that dares to make large profits."

Consumer Choice Reigns

It gets somewhat tiresome always reminding the privacy community that businesses cannot make money if they are not providing a service that consumers actually want, but this point needs to be made again in the case of Gmail. If Gmail turns into the nasty, Big Brother-like spying machine that advocates fear, consumers will simply stop using it. But if Gmail provides a useful service, such as serving an ad on hotels in London as I'm planning a trip with friends, then that's a win-win for business and consumers.

Indeed, Google's idea has folks in Silicon Valley buzzing. "It's a brilliant idea," said technology consultant Steve Mushero. "It answers the question of how to deliver targeted ads in an anonymous way."

That's a good point, making it all the more shocking that the privacy community is reacting so strongly against it.

Storm of Controversy

California state senator Liz Figueroa is so upset about Gmail that she has introduced legislation to constrain it. "We think it's an absolute invasion of privacy," she said. "It's like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home."

How exactly a billboard violates privacy is not quite clear. But what was recently made astoundingly clear by journalist Declan McCullagh is that Sen. Figueroa does not have a privacy policy on her own Web site detailing how she uses personal information submitted to her in feedback forms. She thus delivers another blow to the legitimacy of the privacy lobby, a determined bunch.

This week, London-based Privacy International filed complaints with regulators in Australia, Canada and 15 countries in Europe, saying that Gmail violates privacy law. For a service that's still in test phase, it's amazing that privacy advocates are so certain the final product will violate the law, but maybe they have access to prescient powers like those used by Tom Cruise's character in the movie Minority Report.

There's a giga-fretting mob out to get Gmail, but regulators and consumers have good reason to ignore the hysterics. It truly must be a slow year in the privacy-pushing world when advocates get wound up over a free gig of e-mail space that users can choose to ignore if they wish.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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