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.
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.