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Google's Eyes in Your Inbox

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2004; 9:53 AM

The old adage "nothing in life is free" rings true for search engine giant Google's plans to launch a free e-mail service to take on the likes of Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN/Hotmail.

On the surface, Google's Gmail appears to offer a great deal -- free e-mail accounts with a whopping 1 gigabyte of storage space and fancy search functions to sift through messages. But the catch is that e-mail messages will come packaged with tailored ads generated by Google's sophisticated ad delivery system. The preying eyes of Google's technology will effectively mine e-mail content to match up personal e-mail correspondence with targeted ads.

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Privacy advocates are already crying foul, and it's a fair question whether Google is being caught by surprise by such criticism after being spoiled by so much glowing media coverage lately as it prepares for what is expected to be the biggest IPO in years.

Google tried to get ahead of the controversy in the new e-mail service's privacy policy, which says: "We serve highly relevant ads and other information as part of the service using our unique content-targeting technology. No human reads your email to target ads or related information to you without your consent."

So is it OK, as Google's privacy policy implies, for a computer to rifle through your personal correspondence? The answer is a resounding "no!" from a privacy community that insists the opportunities for abuse are just too big to ignore.

Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center offered up one of the best sound bites to the Los Angeles Times on why consumers should be wary: "He likened the Gmail ads to a computerized voice interrupting a phone conversation about a vacation with a pitch for a travel agency." The L.A. Times went on to offer its own example of intrusive ad-delivery, saying "the specter of seeing an ad for an antacid beside a message from a friend complaining about stomach pain is enough to make some people nervous about the e-mail service." Jordana Beebe, the communications director for San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, told the paper: "The privacy implications of going through and perusing a customer's e-mail to display targeted advertising could be the Achilles' heel for Google's services."
The Los Angeles Times: Google's E-mail Strategy Criticized (Registration required)

London's The Guardian explained more about how the service would work: "Google said Gmail users would be able to search emails by sender, topic or other keywords and organise them according to conversational threads. Google claimed it would have better anti-spam filters than its rivals, a key selling point for all providers. But there will be a drawback. Google hopes to make money from the service by programming its servers to pick up key words in emails and deliver related advertising in the messages. An email about a concert might include a link from a ticketing agency, for instance."
The Guardian: Google Sends Message To Its Rivals -- Gmail

Yinka Adegoke, deputy editor of New Media Age, told the London Telegraph that "[t]here are privacy concerns around contextual advertising. Not everyone is going to be happy with the idea that if they send emails about football, they will then have football-related ads stuck in their emails and that a computer somewhere is recording that information."
The Telegraph: Google Launches Advanced E-mail In War On Rivals

In Google We Trust

Google stressed that ads would only show up on incoming e-mail, according to Wired. "Wayne Rosing, Google's vice president of engineering, said the system would not read and insert ads into correspondence that the Gmail user sent out. 'That would be editorializing your outgoing e-mail,' he said."
Wired: Free E-mail With A Steep Price

Google's Jonathan Rosenberg "said yesterday that the ads would be akin to coupons that shoppers get at grocery stores based on what they've just purchased," The Washington Post reported. "For example, during a trial run of the service, Rosenberg said he and his sister exchanged e-mails that discussed their mother's interest in gardening. An ad for a garden bench then appeared next to the text of his e-mail. He bought the bench for his parents' 50th anniversary."

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