Google Gmail: Value or Invasion?

Apr 19, 2004

By John Hennessy

Google is testing a free email service called Gmail. The service plans to offer each account holder 1 gigabyte of storage — more than 100 times that of Yahoo! and other major free services. Enough storage so you may never have to delete an email.

Account holders will be able to quickly retrieve items from their new, voluminous inbox using Google’s patented search technology. In exchange, Gmail account holders give Google permission to scan their Gmails and insert relevant text ads and links.

Scanning email content sounds scary at first, but unlike unwanted pop-ups and pop-unders, Google is being upfront with the rules of the game. People who are squeamish about it, don’t have to play. And the services Google is bundling into Gmail make it clear that Google understands there is value in handing over permission.

This model has not surprisingly attracted the attention of privacy advocates. California State Sen. Liz Figueroa has reportedly written to Google expressing strong concern and may propose legislation to block the launch of Gmail.

In the UK, the Information Commissioner Office (ICO) has received a formal complaint from Privacy International. However, the agency seems to be keeping an open mind. “As long as Google makes it clear that it is monitoring e-mail usage and passing that information on for marketing purposes, there shouldn’t be a problem”, said an ICO spokesperson.

Google’s official responses to complaints abroad are forthright. “We are confident that Gmail is fully compliant with data protection laws worldwide. Google actively solicits user feedback on our privacy policies. If they can be made clearer or otherwise improved, we want to hear about it. We look forward to a detailed dialogue with data protection authorities across Europe to ensure their concerns are heard and resolved,” said a representative of the service.

Trading off personal info and minor inconveniences for other items of value are not uncommon practices, but proposing to scan through emails, even with bots, is a pretty bold move and bound to meet some resistance. Assuming enough of the right people accept the terms and the ad targeting brings advertisers good results, it could be well worth the trouble.

Moderator’s Comment: Do you believe enough of the right shoppers will sign up to make the Gmail service interesting to advertisers and profitable for
Google? Would widespread acceptance of the Gmail offer make you think hard about what you have to offer shoppers in exchange for a bit more personal insight? Does Google’s model
push the privacy envelope too far?

I give Google credit for putting all its cards on the table with this innovative approach to free email. I’m eager to see how it works out.
Hennessy – Moderator


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