Since its announcement that it will begin offering a free Web mail service called Gmail, Google has been blasted by privacy advocates. They say the service’s features set a dangerous precedent in its collection of user information.
On April 6th, an open letter was sent to Google executives from 28 electronic privacy organizations, asking for a suspension of the company’s plan until privacy concerns can be adequately addressed. Watchdog Privacy International, known for its “Big Brother Awards” that highlight government and corporate actions that threaten personal privacy, has asked the UK Information Commissioner to investigate Google’s new service.
Google historically has operated by a simple guiding rule, according to a January 2003 Wired article: Don’t be evil. As its reach grows, the company increasingly may be called upon to prove its loyalty to that rule.
“The policies for Gmail, like those for Google.com uphold the highest levelof integrity and respect for our users’ information,” Google said in a statementresponding to the privacy concerns. “We will protect user privacy to the maximum extent we can while also abiding by the law. Google will never rent, sell or share a user’s personal information with third parties for marketing purpose without a user’s permission. The Gmail privacy [policy] is available here: (http://www.google.com/gmail/help/privacy.html)”
Google has said the idea for Gmail stemmed from complaints by a Google user about existing Web e-mail programs. In a press release announcing the service, Google co-founder Larry Page noted that the user complained about difficulty in staying under the usual four-megabyte limit. The company claims it will offer nearly unlimited storage — up to a gigabyte — for average users.
It is not this staggering storage capacity that is sparking controversy, though. Google also has noted that the content of e-mail messages will be scanned to allow for advertiser links based on a user’s presumed interests. For example, if an incoming e-mail contains words like “hotel” and “vacation,” Google could attach advertising for travel services or hotels.
Google claims machines, not humans, will do this kind of work. According to the company, this is an important distinction because it means e-mail will be scanned rather than read.
Anxieties About Snooping
Although users of Google’s search service already receive ads on search results pages that are related to their search terms, e-mail is a different environment, said Richard Smith, a well-known privacy advocate and former head of the Privacy Foundation.
As Smith told the E-Commerce Times: “I’m all for targeting ads on Web pages based on content, but e-mail messages are private communications. It’s just not polite to read other people’s e-mails.”
He added, “To my knowledge, none of the other major e-mail companies like Hotmail, AOL and Yahoo are doing ad targeting based on the contents of email messages.”
Fear and Loathing
Other privacy advocates also have cited text scanning as a major concern, prompting the open letter sent from top privacy organizations like the World Privacy Forum, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, among others.
Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum and co-author of the letter, told the E-Commerce Times that the proposed text scanning of e-mail violates the implicit trust of users and sets a dangerous precedent.
She added that another Google announcement — that it will retain e-mailmessages in its system even after a user has closed his or her Gmail account — brings up additional questions.
“How long will the data be kept?” she said. “What will it be used for? The problem, too, is that this could be a precedent that would allow for other companies to scan e-mail and use the information for what they want. It’s a building, and once you build it, anyone can use it.”
Other countries were represented in the open letter from privacy advocates, including The Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom, which may be an indication that Google could face outcry on a global scale.
Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the open letter’s other author, told the E-Commerce Times that Google is an international phenomenon and is therefore heavily used in other countries. Because of its reach, the company will have to meet privacy requirements around the world.
“We think [Gmail] runs afoul of the EU privacy directive,” she said, “perhaps even the privacy of other countries.”
Privacy advocates are asking Google to enter into discussions with the privacy community and put Gmail plans on hold.