April 15, 2004 | WebMemo on Regulation
On April 1, Google announced a Web-mail service, "Gmail," that will bring together e-mail, Google's search technology, and other innovative features. Internet reaction to this announcement was mostly positive, but some "privacy advocates" have been extremely critical, pointing out that the service will also scan subscribers' e-mail for targeted marketing purposes. While their arguments have done little to dampen consumer enthusiasm, these advocates may still succeed in their efforts to get government to ban Gmail; one California state senator is already working on legislation to that end. Consumers do take privacy seriously, but they want it on their own terms, including the freedom to volunteer or to withhold information. Government regulation, therefore, would be a mistake.
Google aims to do the same thing for e-mail that it did for Web search. In the pre-Google era, not only were the results of a Web search frequently off the mark, but the major search engines were in the midst of becoming "portals" by adding unnecessary features to their sites at an alarming rate. Around 1999, it became apparent that Web search was getting worse-not better.
Google changed everything. While Google's technology was-and is-impressive, its real innovation was in the business of search. Not only could search be sold as a service (which had been done before), but Google discovered that advertisements could be implemented in a way that didn't detract from the user experience-and often actually improved it. This changed the economics of Web search: No longer would it be a money-loser meant to attract attention to other, more lucrative services. Unsurprisingly, Google's popularity and profitability have grown more or less in tandem.
…Now With E-mail
A similar restructuring of the Web-mail market may be in the cards. At least, Google thinks so. Earlier this month Google announced its offering, Gmail, now available on a trial basis. Gmail grants users a gigabyte of space, generally enough to accommodate several years' worth of e-mail. It ties this archive to Google's search technology, which may be a more effective way to organize mail than the decades-old folder system design used elsewhere. In the future, Gmail may lead to breakthroughs in personalized search, information management, and spam filtering. Gmail is also surprisingly uncluttered, without banner ads or tie-ins to unneeded services.
Google's advertising program, which automatically scans e-mails as they are opened and selects relevant advertisements, is responsible for this development. These advertisements are displayed, unobtrusively, as plain text on the side of the screen. If a book is mentioned in an e-mail message, for example, one or more advertisements might link to a store selling it. Some users may prefer this sort of advertisement to the flashing banner ads that are prevalent elsewhere.
Others, like California state Senator Liz Figueroa, may not. "It's like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home," Figueroa has said of Gmail advertising. An ally of groups like the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Figueroa is drafting legislation to block Gmail.
Gmail is similarly under attack in Europe, where some privacy advocates are seeking to have it banned.
The privacy advocates' arguments are not baseless. The scanning of messages to find matching advertisements worries some consumers, though it is hardly different from the spam filtering that most Web-mail services perform. Some advocates are also concerned that deleted messages may never be fully purged from Gmail's storage system because of a peculiarity in the way it was designed. While users could not recover these messages, the government-armed with a subpoena-possibly could.
Keep in mind that e-mail is notoriously insecure. It is trivial, for example, to send messages that appear as if they came from another address. Messages are generally sent over the Internet as plain text and travel through several mail servers: Anyone determined to do so could intercept an e-mail message. Moreover, while encryption is possible, it is not popular. Those most concerned about privacy should avoid all unencrypted e-mail, including most Web-mail services.
Consumers take privacy seriously, but they want it on their own terms, including the freedom to volunteer or withhold information. Some self-described privacy advocates wish to restrict this freedom. These "advocates" actually speak for a small minority of Internet users. The tremendous popularity of Web sites that require the user to submit some form personal information-from an e-mail address to income information-proves that Internet users pay these radical advocates little heed. Perhaps that explains the advocates' current discontent: Few agree with their advocacy of absolute privacy, while many are willing to part with personal information for varying benefits.
Andrew Grossman is Senior Web Writer/Editor at The Heritage Foundation.