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California Senate OKs Gmail Bill, Drops Marketing Restrictions

The California Senate approved a bill restricting Google's new e-mail system's data retention practices while leaving untouched its method of scanning messages to display paid listings.

The bill goes to the Assembly for a vote.

The state Senate voted 24-8 last week in favor of SB 1822, which was sponsored by Sen. Liz Figueroa to restrict how Google's Gmail service handles e-mail. The bill would forbid e-mail services from transferring personal information to third parties and employees and other people from having access to such information. It would require e-mail services to delete e-mail messages from their servers when a consumer hits the delete key.

The bill was amended to remove the most onerous and controversial restriction. SB 1822 had required an e-mail service to obtain permission from the receiver and sender before scanning messages for marketing purposes. At the time, Figueroa called Gmail “like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home.”

Gmail, now being tested by several thousand users, scans incoming e-mail messages to match them up to keyword advertising displayed next to e-mails. In return, Gmail users get 1,000 megabytes of storage. The new version of SB 1822 strikes the provisions forbidding the scanning of messages for marketing purposes.

Google spokesman David Krane characterized the company's stance on the bill as neutral.

“Google has worked in good faith with Senator Figueroa and her staff to address her concerns about privacy and online communications,” he said. “We believe we have reached conceptual agreement on most of the key points, but we have not yet reached agreement on all the details.”

In a statement, Figueroa said the bill “guarantees that our most private communications will remain just that — private.”

Google ignited privacy concerns with its April 1 announcement of Gmail. Thirty-one privacy groups asked Google to halt its plan to release Gmail until it addressed concerns regarding the ad system and Google's data retention policy, which would keep e-mail messages on Google servers even after users had deleted them. A United Kingdom privacy group has filed complaints with regulators in 16 countries, asserting that Gmail would violate privacy laws in Europe and Canada.

Google's current policy is to make “reasonable efforts” to expunge deleted e-mails from its system.

Google admitted it was caught off guard by the criticism of its policies. It has moved to defend Gmail from what it calls “misinformation.”

In a privacy note posted on the Gmail site in May, Google criticized Gmail detractors, including legislators, for not taking the time to understand how Gmail works and seeking to restrict consumer choice out of anti-commercial motivations.

“When we began the limited test of Gmail, we expected our service would be the subject of intense interest,” the privacy notice says. “What we did not anticipate was the reaction from some privacy activists, editorial writers and legislators, many of whom condemned Gmail without first seeing it for themselves.”

Krane said Google would continue to push for changes to the bill as it moves through the legislative process. He declined to specify which language Google would like altered.

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