Is Gmail Privacy As Bad As Microsoft Says It Is?

    February 25, 2013
    Chris Crum

Last week, Microsoft launched a new “Scroogled” campaign. In case you don’t recall, the company launched a campaign under that name during the holiday season, calling out Google Shopping for its paid Google Shopping model (a move that has been controversial). This time, Microsoft is using the “Scroogled” brand again to attack a decade-old feature of Google’s Gmail – the one that Google uses to target advertising to users by algorithmically scanning emails.

Are you concerned about Gmail’s ad targeting practices? Do you consider them to be a violation of privacy? What is your opinion of the ads themselves? Share your thoughts in the comments.

We had a conversation about Microsoft’s latest attack on Google with Stefan Weitz, Microsoft’s senior director of Online Services (also one of the more well-known faces of Bing). While Microsoft recently launched a new mail product – – many find the timing of this attack a bit strange, given that Gmail has operated this way since its inception.

“We want to make sure people understand how much of their privacy they are giving up when they use Gmail,” Weitz tells WebProNews. “If people understand they are giving up their privacy and they wish to do so, that’s their choice. But we want to make sure they understand this is going on. What surprised us, even after a decade of this practice, is that over two-thirds of people don’t know what is happening and when they find out, nearly 90% say it should stop. People are saying it doesn’t seem right. It seems creepy. The question users have to ask is: Do you want one company to have that much information about you?”

Google did alter its privacy policies last year, essentially consolidating them into one that spans across its various products, making it easier for the company to use data from one of its services in another.

Of course, Microsoft does scan users’ emails. Just not to serve ads.

“We do not scan the contents of user emails for the purpose of showing ads,” says Weitz. “Like many email providers, scans the content of your email to help protect you and prevent spam, gray mail, phishing scams, viruses, malware, and other dangers and annoyances. It is just like how the postal service sorts and scans mail and packages for dangerous explosive and biohazards. Of course, previous article, we looked at what Google says about privacy in Gmail. Google’s PR has been sending around this comment:

“Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services Google offers free of charge. We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant. No humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information. An automated algorithm — similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering — determines which ads are shown.”

You can read a much lengthier set of relevant comments from the company from an old help center article in that article.

It should be noted that Google has fired employees in the past after they were caught (in separate incidents) spying on user emails and chats. You can take that two ways: 1. It has happened before. 2. Google does not tolerate such behavior. Presumably, these incidents had nothing to do with ad targeting.

Microsoft’s new Scroogled ads almost make Google’s ad targeting relevance seem like the subject of the attack in some parts. See the dead cat example in this one:

“Who wants a free pet exam coupon when the family cat has been put down?” the ad asks.

“First, it’s important to keep in mind that Google’s practice of earning money by reading personal e-mails is not exclusive to Gmail users,” says Weitz. “This also impacts those who don’t have a Gmail account. If you use another email provider but you send an email to someone else’s Gmail account, Google goes through that too. That’s why we’re also asking consumers to sign the petition on and tell Google to stop going through their emails to sell ads.”

“Second, is committed to protecting users’ privacy and offers users the experience they’re seeking in their email provider,” he continues. “Last, I’m not sure how making their targeting even more exact is going to make the 90% of Americans who say it should stop any happier.”

In case you’re wondering if Microsoft has ever targeted ads based on email message content, Weitz says, “We have never targeted ads based on the content of email messages. Our privacy policy is very clear on this. The bottom-line is we don’t eavesdrop on private communications. We still have ads in Outlook, but the difference is we don’t scan your mail to sell those ads. We think we can still make revenue to pay for the service even if the ads are not directly targeted or related to the private communications that you have. And we give users the option to opt-out, which is a big difference from Gmail.”

Microsoft told us during the original holiday themed Scroogled campaign that the name “Scroogled” was about “Scrooge” (as opposed to “getting screwed by Google” or something along those lines). We could buy it at the time, given the holiday context. Bing even went out of its way to make A Christmas Carol references in its announcement of the campaign. Now that we’re into February, it’s starting to feel a little more like “screwed by Google”.

“You can interpret it however you would like, but’s ‘Don’t Get Scroogled’ campaign is purely about prioritizing privacy and making people informed,” says Weitz. “When polled, over two-thirds are unaware that Google reads their e-mails to make money from targeted ads. ‘Don’t Get Scroogled’ is simply a national consumer awareness campaign to educate Americans about Google’s practice of going through the contents of personal Gmail email messages to sell and target ads. That, and the term has entered the lexicon to generally refer to unseemly practices by Google.”

On a different note, given the rivalry between Google and Microsoft and Microsoft’s relationship with Yahoo, many are wondering what Microsoft thinks about the newly announced deal between Google and Yahoo for contextual ads.

“I’d say I wonder how Google is using the content [of] your private communications in Gmail to serve ads in other places,” says Weitz on the subject.

When we spoke with Microsoft’s David Pann last week, he told us that the company would be launching Google-like product listing ads (they’re also launching click-to-call ads with Skype integration) later this year. As long as we had Weitz, we figured we’d see if he had anything to add.

“We’ll have more to say about new ad products in the future but it’s important to note that they are just that – new ad types,” he says. “As we always do, we will clearly highlight when something is an ad versus organic.”

In addition to the new Scroogled campaign, Bing has also renewed its Bing It On campaign with new research data.

Do you think Microsoft is handling online information better than Google, whether that be in email, search or ads? Let us know what you think.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.