Google is getting kudos for its decision to stop scanning the content of email for use in serving advertising. But does it reflect a desire to protect consumer privacy, or is it a hard-headed business decision?
Most reports attribute the move to a desire by Google to reassure its Gsuite cloud customers that their information is secure. Google does not scan their emails, but it sought to eliminate the issue as it faces tough competition from Microsoft and Amazon for cloud business, The Verge said.
The New York Times added that “Google said it plans to carry out the changes to the Gmail ad policy 'after this year'." It will continue to scan Gmail to screen for potential spam or phishing attacks as well as offering suggestions for automated replies to email.”
Google sees it as a win-win, of course. “This decision brings Gmail ads in line with how we personalize ads for other Google products,” wrote Diane Greene, Google’s senior vice president in charge of Google Cloud, in a blog post.
So does Google deserve credit for this shift? Matt McGowan, president of Adestra, an email software provider, and a former Google executive, believes it does.
“I think there’s two points here that we need to consider,” he said in an email. “This is all about privacy and the data that consumers have in the ecosystem. This is really a move in self-regulation that we see across the adtech space. While privacy may not be at the top of consumers’ minds in every online interaction, I think Google’s move here is a positive step to draw lines of what they will use for advertising and what they won’t. Your email is extremely personal, and I think most consumers would have some legitimate fear of what’s being scanned.
“There is a very valid point that customers who were paying for Gmail / Google Apps were not getting scanned while those who were using for free were. Google is just aligning T&Cs to make it easier for customers to understand what it is they are sharing. Simpler Terms & Conditions mean better trust by the consumers to Google.
“Google already has the most valuable piece of information. The email address. That key to the digital identification gives them much more information than scanning emails and if they advocate for consumers privacy, that makes them more valuable and trusted.
“I think this move is positive for the consumer and a clear sign to the industry that there are lines that we need to draw to advocate for consumers privacy.”
However, not all sources see the move in an equally positive light.
“The Google announcement is a bit misleading,” said Jay Schwedelson, CEO of Worldata, a list and database supplier and an email marketing specialist, in an email. “They state that ‘Consumer Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalization after this change.’ While that is true the announcement specifically focuses on them not using the email CONTENT for ad targeting.”
Schwedelson continued: “Google, via Gmail, has a robust ad targeting business that they run targeting consumers based on whom they receive promotional emails from. Meaning, if you get promotional emails from Dell to your Gmail account they allow for competitors of Dell to target those users via their Gmail accounts. This is done via the sender’s Domain (i.e. Dell.com) and NOT the content of the email which is what they are no longer doing. It will be interesting to see if they really phase out all targeting ad options for Gmail or just the ones that are performing well.”
Despite this situation, it’s nice to see a company resolving a privacy issue without being forced to do so by regulators. Remember how at least one of the big three credit bureaus fought bitterly for the right to continue using credit information in mailing lists?
Not that Google has been free of legal problems. In 2015, it was hit with a class-action suit by non-gmail users who called its practice of scanning emails “the twenty-first-century equivalent of AT&T eavesdropping on each of its customers’ phone conversations, or of the postal service taking information from private correspondence,” according to The Verge.
The suit was filed by non-Gmail users who hadn’t agreed to have their emails scanned under Google’s terms of service.
They objected to the fact that the scans took place before the emails were available to the Gmail user. This violated the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the California Information Privacy Act, they alleged, according to The Verge.
The parties agreed to a settlement last December that would have required Google to “eliminate any collection of advertising-specific data before an email is accessible in a user’s inbox,” The Verge continued.
Google also agreed to pay costs, including up to $2.2 million in attorney fees and $2,000 for each of the class representatives -- small change for the search giant.
However, Federal Judge Lucy Koh rejected the deal in March because of a lack of full disclosure, according to Fortune. "This notice is difficult to understand and does not clearly disclose the fact that Google intercepts, scans and analyzes the content of emails sent by non-Gmail users to Gmail users for the purpose of creating user profiles of the Gmail users to create targeted advertising for the Gmail users," Koh wrote, Fortune reported.
It’s not clear if this played into Google’s decision to step back. But there could be other contributing factors. As MediaPost’s Laurie Sullivan wrote on Friday, “Google may be making the shift because its machine-learning algorithms can gain enough data to target ads through other means such as pulling in search data through its network or by using AdWords Customer Match, which serves advertisements by matching the email address to other customer data.”
But there’s a lesson here. Data now pours in from multiple sources, and is increasingly accessible by multiple parties. The temptation is always there to use it to drive ROI.
But firms have to consider consumer -- and corporate -- sensibilities. First, they have to be transparent about what they’re doing. And in some cases, they have to refrain from doing it at all.
The prescription? Self-regulation.