June 15, 2024

Thoughts on the Gmail Privacy Flap

I have to admit I’m surprised at the magnitude of the recent controversy about Gmail, Google’s new webmail service. Gmail is a free webmail service, giving you up to one gigabyte of storage for email. The service shows you text ads alongside your messages, and provides various search features for your mail. The service has been surprisingly controversial, triggering angry blog-entries, letters from privacy groups, and even an anti-Gmail bill in the California state senate.

It’s important to separate complaints about what Gmail is doing now, from complaints about what the Gmail user agreement allows them to do later.

The main complaint about Gmail’s present design has to do with the text-based ads that Gmail is said to display alongside your email. To decide which ads to place, Gmail looks at the content of your email. Presumably this is a straightforward application of Google’s AdWords system (which used to appear on this site).

I’m not entirely sure why people are offended by the running of a (presumably memoryless) word-matching algorithm over their email, or the displaying of word-triggered ads. The scanner, by itself, wouldn’t bother me at all, since advertisers don’t find out who saw their ads. Users who click on the ads will be taken to the advertisers’ sites, which might try to identify them, but that’s not a new risk, and it’s controllable by the user. Other kinds of scanners, for instance onces that made summaries of my email for sale to third parties, would bother me a lot; but that’s not what Gmail is doing.

The other complaint about Gmail has been about the terms of its user agreement. There’s no doubt that the terms are egregious; but they don’t seem much worse than the terms imposed by other companies. (Seth Finkelstein makes this point well.) Hotmail’s terms of use are pretty distasteful too. So why the big flap over this particular agreement?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to see people screaming about outrageous user agreements. It’s just that I would like to see some of that same anger directed elsewhere, to bring more balance into user agreements for all kinds of products. I hope the Gmail flap will cause people to look at other agreements in the same light.

I was never a likely customer for Gmail. But I can say for sure that the terms of service are enough to eliminate any remaining chance that I would switch to Gmail as my main email provider.


  1. A columnist in the Guardian last week made the point that objecting to Google’s software scanning our email is bolting the privacy door after the milk’s spilt: ISP’s now scan our email for viruses; the NSA scans our email for sekrit terrorist plans; the IT department at your job scans your email for pron, company secrets, yuks, etc. So why shouldn’t Google scan for ad-worthy words?

  2. Google responds to privacy concerns

    Google responds to privacy concerns here. My personal concern was about emails remaining on Google’s server even after I deleted them.. now that has been addressed, I’m looking forward to Gmail. I’m not so concerned about emails being scanned by…

  3. Peter McCarthy says

    One must remember that however strongly one objects to the Gmail ToS, one is always free to reject them and go elsewhere. Gmail will succeed (or fail) on people choosing to use it (or not). While I may not wish to get targeted ads in every email, there are those who will find the some of Gmail’s other features worth that cost.

  4. Which specific terms of service are enough to eliminate any remaining chance that you would switch to Gmail as your main email provider?

  5. Interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing.

    What about this, perhaps weird, privacy violation: instead of “Want to Know Who’s Googling You?,” it becomes “Want to know who’s emailing about you?” E.g., I purchase ad words for my name (or your name) just so I can see to track if people are mentioning me in their email accounts? How about combinations of your name and someone elses? Of course, I can’t tell who is doing it unless they foolishly click on my ad but my ears will be ringing.

    Or how about this: buying an ad to send a message to ex-lover? Perhaps it could provide me a way around her auto-filter?

    Still, google’s forray into personal communications is potentially spooky. Unlike the government (which has a ton of personal info on its citizens), google knows how to make sense of enormous data sets.

  6. Thanks for mention!

    As I wrote, I think the TOS flap is in essence a way the A-listers are expressing their disillusionment with Google-As-God. Sadly, it has nothing to do with egregious TOS terms _per se_, and thus I don’t think it will translate at all into general reaction against such terms. Rather, it’s an acceptable emotioal way for them to say “Google isn’t being moral here”. The constraints of net ideology do not allow that sentence to be socially acceptable in such a naked form.

    The problem with the Gmail scanning isn’t the application claimed (context ads). It’s the potential applications. It’s the FBI’s *Carnivore*, presented as a service!