Advocate’s Gmail Arguments Largely Unfounded

    April 19, 2004

The privacy debate continues to swell over Google’s recently announced Gmail service, which offers enormous amounts of storage in exchange for the ability to scan incoming emails and place ads based on keywords there.

2004: GMail Odyssey
2004: GMail Odyssey

Privacy advocates and one Californian legislator claim this is a major privacy invasion.

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, told ClickZ, “the fact that it’s machines [scanning emails] is irrelevant. Machines are more efficient than humans and far more able to be privacy invasive than humans because they can read so much more.”

Her statement counters the common opinion that because there are no humans actually reading the emails that there is no violation of privacy. Further, she thinks that because machines are more efficient at reading emails that the potential for violation is much greater.

However, isps already scan your email for spam and viruses – the scale of privacy invasion Dixon fears happens daily.

The biggest fear privacy advocates have is that Google will be able to link specific keywords with specific users and begin to database their behavior. This San Jose Mercury News article title sums up the fear succinctly, “If Google ogles your e-mail, will Ashcroft be far behind?”

Paul Boutin, in his Slate article, spoke with Sergey Brin and reported that, “Gmail’s ad server, he says, doesn’t collect any info on which ads it serves to which specific users, nor does it record users’ browser cookies or IP addresses.”

Sergey Brin said recently that Google may allow Gmail users to opt out of ads. He downplayed the statement soon after however, as Gmail’s still in beta testing they’re investigating every option, and opting out of ads is just one possibility.

Some advocates argue that allowing Gmail to read your mail could lead to heightened levels of privacy invasion, that Gmail could be the beginning of a 1984 police state as we come to expect less privacy in email.

I applaud the tenacity of these advocates – I’m glad they’re raising such a fuss and forcing Google to really inspect their business practices. However, our emails are already being scanned for viruses, and those who are truly concerned can always just choose not to use Gmail or send email to Gmail accounts.

As Paul Boutin pointed out, “ten years ago, some Web pioneers had a similarly squeamish reaction when the first search engines began crawling their sites and including them in searchable databases, along with ads matched to users’ queries.”

Garrett French is the editor of iEntry’s eBusiness channel. You can talk to him directly at WebProWorld, the eBusiness Community Forum.