I finally got an invitation to open a GMail account, thanks to a wonderful friend. If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past month, GMail is the new web-mail service that Google is testing. When they launch, they promise free email accounts with a whopping 1 GB of storage — enough to keep all your email archives online. In exchange, they will use their AdSense technology to display relevant advertisements next to your email.
AdSense scans the text of the message looking for certain keywords, then displays text ads that match those targeted keywords. The technology was launched about a year ago for website publishers, and in fact, I use it on the BigBlueBall forums and many of my other websites. They are typically the least intrusive form of online advertising I’ve seen, and are usually very effective at displaying ads that are relevant to the content they appear next to.
For some reason, the privacy wonks are having a field day with GMail, declaring it a travesty; a violation of personal privacy. Some nonprofit groups even sent a complaint letter to California attorney general Bill Lockyer, claiming that GMail’s automated keyword bots somehow violate federal wiretap laws.
California State Senator Liz Figueroa, a democrat, is drafting legislation to block Google from offering the service even before they begin, claiming that GMail is “an absolute invasion of privacy.” A quick search through Google news reveals a long list of articles lambasting the proposed service.
I’m a big advocate of personal privacy. But this time, most of the privacy advocates have it all wrong. The risk of privacy invasion is no worse than with any other email provider. All email services — Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL or your local ISP — have the ability to read your email. Unless you encrypt your email (which 99.999% of us do not), your email could be read by someone working for the email provider. For them to do so would be unethical and likely illegal, but it is possible. Yet we trust them to blithely ignore our emails, and assume that the only eyes to see them will be the friends, family or associates we sent them to.
In the case of GMail, people are not reading your email, nor are they creating a mysterious profile of you and your interests. A software program is simply looking for occurrence and frequency of certain words that advertisers think will translate into dollars or euros.
Is it technically possible that Google could extend this technology for a more sinister purpose? Perhaps profiling your interests and then selling your GMail address to spammers? Certainly. But then, so could any email provider. Why am I not concerned? Because if Google or any other email provider ever got caught doing that, it would mark the end of their service.
Customer loyalty is built on service and trust. Google has both by the truckloads, but if word got out that they were the bad guy, their fortunes would disappear before you could say “dot-com-bust.” And remember, this is an optional service. Spooked by privacy concerns? Then don’t sign up.
Meanwhile, I’m having fun with my new GMail account. Feel free to reach out and email me: jeff.hester[at]gmail.com