Microsoft hits Google with e-mail privacy campaign

Daniel Acker/BLOOMBERG NEWS - The Gmail logo is pictured on the top of a welcome page in New York Friday, April 1, 2005.

There’s no love lost between Google and Microsoft, and the enmity is rising now that the latter has launched a new campaign accusing Google of bad ad practices on Gmail.

But consumers may want to check their outrage. This territory has been traveled before.

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This is Microsoft latest salvo in its “Scroogled” campaign, dinging its archrival for using algorithms to scan Gmail users’ messages and serve ads based on the keywords they find there. This is a favorite target of Microsoft, which has criticized Google for the same practices in the past.

The campaign also promotes Microsoft’s own mail service, a relaunched version of Hotmail — which, it should be noted, does use personal information users provide, as well as users’ search histories, to serve ads of its own.

Fresh in this round is new data from a Microsoft -commissioned study of how consumers feel about seeing ads based on what’s in their personal inboxes. In the Gfk Roper study of 1,006 participants, a vast majority — 89 percent — said that they do not think that e-mail services providers should be allowed to scan the content of personal e-mail in order to target advertising.

Stefan Weitz, Microsoft’s senior director of online services, said that the survey participants were skewed a bit more to the 18-to-34 age demographic most likely to use e-mail.

Google responded much the same way it has in the past: confirming that it’s been scanning e-mails with advertising algorithms since the beginning of the service and that it’s made its practices clear. If users want to get rid of ads, they are free to pay Google $50 for the professional version of its Web mail service, just as users can pay $20 to stop seeing ads on their inboxes. But to keep e-mail free, the company said, advertising has to be part of the equation.

“Advertising keeps Google and many of the Web sites and services Google offers free of charge,” said Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith. “We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant. No humans read your e-mail or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information.”

Weitz said it is disingenuous to say that the algorithms used to find spam are the same as those used to target ads, because the intent is so different — monetizing personal communications instead of offering consumer protection.

On its Scroogled campaign site, Microsoft is gathering signatures for a petition titled “Tell Google to stop going through your ads.” Weitz said that the company has yet to decide what it will do with the petition, which has a target of 25,000 signatures. As of Thursday afternoon, it had just over 800.

Regardless of what the tech titans are saying to each other, consumers who don’t read terms of service could be spooked when they see an ad for hotels in Miami pop up when talking to their friends about a Florida trip. While no e-mail company employee is tasked with reading up on your spring break plans, if you’re not comfortable with ads on your e-mail, you may want to consider paying the privacy premium.

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