Google’s E-Mail Strategy Criticized
Privacy advocates are concerned that there’s one big flaw with Google Inc.'s free e-mail service: The company plans to read the messages.
The Internet search firm insists that it needs to know what’s in the e-mails that pass through its system -- so that they can be sprinkled with advertisements Google thinks are relevant. After all, revenue from those targeted ads will pay for the Gmail service, which began a limited test Thursday, offering up to 500 times as much e-mail storage as competing Web e-mail programs from Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
The electronic letters won’t be read by Google employees; computers will handle that chore. Nonetheless, 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.
“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,” said Jordana Beebe, the communications director for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an consumer group in San Diego.
The consternation caught Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and president of products, off guard.
“I’m very surprised that there are these kinds of questions,” he said Thursday.
There are several reasons. For starters, spam-filtering programs routinely scour e-mails for telltale words such as “Viagra,” and companies monitor the message traffic of employees on their corporate networks.
In addition, Internet companies already scrutinize Web search terms in order to serve up ads that are related to the topic a user cares about.
And Google’s AdSense program already goes a step further, placing such ads alongside content on websites that come up in search results.
But e-mail is a more personal form of communication, making targeted advertisements feel intrusive, said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. He likened the Gmail ads to a computerized voice interrupting a phone conversation about a vacation with a pitch for a travel agency.
“This is an expansion in a way that should bother people,” Hoofnagle said. “Communications are sacred.”
Consumer advocates are also worried about the potential for Google to link Gmail users to their Internet searches.
Google records the numerical Internet addresses of the computers that request each of the Web searches the company performs. But it hasn’t had names or other identifying information to link those addresses to specific people and learn who, for example, is searching for “Janet Jackson halftime show.”
Once users register for Gmail, Google would be able to make that connection, if it chose to, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum in San Diego. And if Google ever compared the two sets of data, she said, “there are some people who would be chilled and embarrassed.”
Page wouldn’t say whether Google planned to link Gmail users to their Web search queries.
“It might be really useful for us to know that information” to make search results better, he said. “I’d hate to rule anything like that out.”
But he insisted that the company would protect user privacy and takes the issue “very, very seriously.”
“We want people in the world to be able to trust Google,” he said, “and we view that as an important part of our business.”