Google Defends Scanning E-Mail for Ad Links

A Google executive told attendees at a conference on technology and privacy that scanning messages to contextually link electronic advertising is a fair and necessary tradeoff for the company's free Gmail service.

BERKELEY, Calif.–A Google Inc. executive on Friday told a conference of privacy advocates here that the companys plan to electronically scan messages sent through its new Gmail service so it can link advertising to message content is a necessary tradeoff.

"To have free e-mail, you have to have ads," Nicole Wong, senior compliance counsel for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, told attendees at the 2004 Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy here. "Ads are a great way to support free e-mail," she said.

Privacy advocates peppered Wong with questions about whether it is right to scan e-mail that comes to Gmail subscribers from other mail systems and whether the very act of scanning e-mail compromises users privacy.

Wong held to Googles contention that isnt doing anything more than other e-mail services have been doing for years. "E-mail is already scanned. It is processed to detect viruses, and it is scanned for spam filtering," she said.

Privacy isnt violated, she contended, if the mail is only scanned to support advertising programs. Personal information isnt extracted or shared in any other way, she said.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read the details about Googles free Gmail service.

Googles Gmail service is currently in beta test and isnt expected to go into service for several months. Google announced the service with an offer to provide a gigabyte of e-mail storage capacity that would allow users to maintain a permanent archive of all of their messages.

Other free, Web-based e-mail services offer far less storage capacity and require subscribers to pay for expanded capacity. Gmail is a way for Google—known mainly for its popular Web search engine—to draw new subscribers away from their existing e-mail service providers.

But the service drew fire immediately from privacy advocates, who were alarmed by the concept of computers scanning message text so that the service could link advertising based on key words in the text.

Some questioned whether the scanning represents an illegal invasion of privacy and whether it is another example of technology slowly but steadily eroding privacy rights.

The objections prompted a California state senator to propose a bill to make it illegal to scan e-mail for the purpose of linking advertising to the text.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about privacy advocates concerns about Googles Gmail.

Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, cited what he called the "creepiness factor" of an e-mail system that peeks into message content to distribute advertising. At stake, he said, "is the ability of an individual to control information about oneself" and to control how that information is accessed and used in the electronic world.

But Sunil Paul, founder and chairman of Brightmail Inc., an e-mail service he created to help users reduce the amount of spam and fraudulent e-mail pitches, said he didnt see the advertising feature as particularly offensive. "I dont find it that creepy," he said, if all it does is give users a choice on whether or not to view an ad.

Sonia Arrison, director of the Center for Technology Studies at Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, conceded that some people might actually welcome getting an ad for Pizza Hut restaurants when they get a message from a friend asking, "Do you want to go out for pizza?"

Attendees at the conference Friday also expressed concern that such a large and permanent message archive could present an inviting target for state and federal law enforcement investigators or divorce lawyers. But Wong tried to assure the audience that the message archive is only as permanent as users want it to be. Users can always delete messages, which would be permanently expunged, she said.

There might be a delay of several days before all message copies are deleted from backup servers, she noted.

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John Pallatto

John Pallatto

John Pallatto has been editor in chief of QuinStreet Inc.'s since October 2012. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional journalist working at a daily newspaper and...