Is Google Bigger Than Big Brother?

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Omnipotent Google is launching Gmail, an e-mail service with 1 gigabyte of free storage per user. That's so people will never have to delete another e-mail again, spam notwithstanding, I guess. Everything goes into an archive that lets you conduct keyword searches of your old e-mails and attachments. In addition, when Gmail displays an e-mail, it will automatically show all the replies to that e-mail as well, so users can view a message in the context of a conversation.

Sounds great, right? The catch is that Gmail also will display Web search and paid listings next to your incoming e-mail messages. Google's contextual advertising system will automatically scan your e-mails for frequently used terms in order to serve up relevant ads. So, if you're reading an e-mail that mentions "car," you might get served ads from Honda or Ford. Google is emphasizing heavily that no human eyes will ever look at your e-mail, but yikes! Imagine being a John Kerry supporter and getting ads for George Bush all the time. I'm afraid to think what you'll get served if your e-mails are of, um, let's say, a little more personal nature.

Privacy activists are already raising their concerns. They have a point here. "I think it's crossing a line that shouldn't be crossed. They should just transfer content," Richard M. Smith told Wired News last week. Others said the service might make it easier for law enforcement to conduct surveillance of users. I wouldn't worry much about that though, considering the existence of Echelon, the Defense Department and CIA program that snoops through 3 billion telephone calls, e-mails, Internet downloads and satellite transmissions every day.

The idea of using ads to pay for a free service isn't new. Yahoo and Hotmail already insert text ads into the bottom of account holders' e-mail messages, but those ads are randomly generated and aren't scanning the e-mail for related content. Funny, but for much of the day that Google's announcement came out, people were wondering whether the whole thing was an April Fools' Day joke.

I haven't decided whether this is too creepy or whether I'll be one of the first to sign up for Gmail. You can bet that Microsoft and Yahoo will respond to Google's file storage issue and increase their capacities. One of these days, we'll also see Microsoft's new search technology, codenamed Longhorn, which is supposed to give Google a run for its money. Still, Google's expected initial public offering later this year just keeps getting bigger and bigger, doesn't it?


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