G On The Spot, Google Responds To Email Privacy Concerns

Gmail, Google's new email service, has come under considerable scrutiny since the company announced its intention to enter the email market in late March. Because of its controversial ad model, in which an automated program scans user's emails in order to deliver contextually relevant text ads, Gmail has drawn the ire of consumer activists, privacy advocates, and even federal regulators nationwide.

Google claims that anyone accusing the service of privacy violations simply misunderstands its methodology. And now, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company has responded with a dedicated Web page addressing the issue: "Gmail and Privacy," which can be accessed from the Gmail home page.

"Some of the present dialogue," it says, "has been inaccurate, especially with regard to privacy concerns surrounding Gmail. Gmail does not represent a compromise or invasion of anyone's privacy," the company states.

Google created Gmail with the idea of turning the folder-based model of most email services into a searchable database/archive model. Currently still in beta-test mode, Gmail will be free to users, and will offer them virtually unlimited storage space, at 1 gigabyte per user.

The tradeoff for a free service with unlimited space, of course, is advertising--but these will be the less noticeable text ads that Google already displays on content sites across the Web.

Privacy advocates and certain government officials are wary that the program that scans user's messages to display context ads is in violation of the privacy of both the sender and the receiver.

However, despite these protests, many of Gmail's beta-testers, which include industry analysts and journalists, have dismissed privacy concerns as being wrong-headed. They say that those vetting concerns over the service have most likely not used it yet. The text ads, they say, have a benign, unobtrusive presence on the page.

According to Washington Post Columnist Leslie Walker: "I have been testing Gmail for weeks and find the value it delivers--including innovative sorting features and a gigabyte of free storage--outweighs any worries I have over Google's computers scanning my mail for such key words as 'flowers' or 'cameras,' then displaying ads alongside messages. I view it as an important experiment in the Internet's drive to make advertising more relevant," she says.

New York Times columnist David Pogue notes that Yahoo! and MSN Hotmail already bombard users with ads on their respective services. He says that Gmail's text ads are far less intrusive. "The ads are so subtle, so easily ignored, that it's hard to imagine anyone preferring the big, blinking slow-loading graphic ads that appear every time you check for messages at the Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail sites."

MSN's Slate magazine writer Paul Boutin writes: "Gmail isn't an invasion of privacy, and its ads are preferable to the giant blinking banners for diets and dating services that are splashed across my other Web mail accounts." He also adds that many Gmail critics fail to recognize that automated programs like Firewalls, antispam, and antivirus programs already scan the contents of incoming email messages.

Nevertheless, the privacy outcry over Gmail continues. According to a Washington Post report, dozens of privacy advocacy groups were undersigned in an open letter to Google urging it to reconsider its contextual advertising plans. The same report says that an international privacy group has also filed complaints against Gmail with governments in Europe and elsewhere. In the United States, California Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) last month introduced a bill that would impinge upon Gmail's ability to scan messages.

However, late Tuesday, Figueroa revised the bill, hoping that the measure would be brought to a full vote before the Senate Legislature recesses on Friday. Among her revisions is a clause that would no longer require the consent of senders in order to serve text ads--a good thing for Google, as it was widely believed that establishing sender consent would be an obstacle to the deployment of Gmail in the state of California.

In addition, the bill allows email and instant messaging programs to scan messages--as long as providers do not retain the data for any reason, sell to third-parties, or show any employee or other "natural person." Also, if requested, it says providers must permanently delete advertising messages.

"This will be the first law in the nation to ensure this type of technology is never used to create files on consumers," Figueroa said in an interview.

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