This whole Gmail fracas seems a bit out of proportion.
Google has announced a webmail service that would choose which text ads to place on the page by the same methods it uses for all its other pages — by looking at the content of the page. Yes, this means that, on some level, some program is “reading your email”. But that’s true anyway; emails don’t get displayed without going through some program or another. The concern arises because the ad-picking program picks the ads based on the content of the email, interpreting the message instead of just displaying it.
Google has given every indication that they will inform users prominently of what’s going on, as they do with the current Google Toolbar product. The installation program for Google Toolbar gives users the choice of providing or not providing information about the web page they’re viewing. This choice comes after a brief and clear explanation of the privacy implications of the choice, and an admonition in big red letters saying, “Please read this carefully. It’s not the usual yadda yadda.”
Even before the release of Gmail, privacy groups are up in arms. In this letter to Google executives, they demand that Google suspend implementation of the context-based email ads and clarify notices about how information will be shared within Google.
The letter raises a number of concerns:
- That information on what ads were served might be available to law enforcement after obtaining a court order. (But law enforcement can already access the text of the emails themselves after obtaining a court order, so how is this different?)
- That if consent to the parsing of emails to choose ads is not obtained after clear notice, Google might be in violation of EU regulations. (But, as noted above, Google has given such clear notice in the past and appears likely to do so in this case as well.)
- That Gmail will set a precedent that data mining in consumer email communications is acceptable, and that some other, less scrupulous firm will correlate and data-mine for profit with impunity. (But Google has no duty to prevent its competitors from being jerks, and I doubt that Gmail makes the large-scale privacy violations inherent in aggregation and correlation of email content any more or any less likely.)
Unstated but implied in the letter is the idea that Gmail users might not be found to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their emails, since they willingly allowed their use for commercial purposes. If a court so found, Gmail emails might be available to law enforcement without a court order. However, the chances of this finding are very, very small; a court would be more likely to see the AdWords parsing as analogous to spam filtering.
While I agree that Google needs to be clear about what data it will collect and how it will use those data, I find these complaints premature.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.