Future of E-Mail and Google’s Gmail

This is part two of a two-part column.

Last month I wrote about Google’s Gmail service. For those who came in late, Google intends to offer free e-mail with a large amount of storage. The price that users pay is accepting contextual marketing with their incoming e-mail based on the actual content of the e-mail communication. My last column discussed the arguments about Gmail. Now I want to look at how e-mail itself could be affected by Gmail.

How do Google’s advertising additions compare with spam? Gmail essentially puts spam (i.e., unsolicited commercial advertising) inside an otherwise nonspam message. What if everyone along the e-mail network did the same thing? E-mail often bounces from one router on the network to another. Can each computer that touches an e-mail add text to it? That may not be technically possible, but what if the sender’s ISP also decides to add text, advertising or even political messages?

Suppose that an ISP takes advertising from an anti-government group. Every e-mail from the Internal Revenue Service that goes to a client of the ISP automatically gets a message attacking the IRS. Another ISP might append to every e-mail from the Social Security Administration a message stating that Social Security is about to go bankrupt.

Now consider if your company were the target of e-mail additions. Suppose a competitor paid an ISP to add a message to e-mail from your company. The message could say something truthful about your company – like it was the target of a FTC investigation – but the information is 20 years old or otherwise misleading. You wouldn’t be happy about that.

The possibility looms that e-mail could become the home for competing messages. One ISP places a paid ad saying “Drink Flovark Cola” in any message that mentions soft drinks. The next ISP adds a rejoinder in the same message saying “Flovark Cola tastes like rat poison.” This may not be a likely outcome in the commercial world. Perhaps opposing candidates for political office would be more likely to use such an attack message.

It is easy to spin out hypotheticals, and we can presume that Google will exercise discretion in what types of ads it will allow and which advertisers will be welcome. But anyone can be an ISP, and it may be that interest groups, political parties and others eventually will offer ISP services, just like they offer branded credit cards.

We are not finished finding hard issues. Scanning of e-mail content by an ISP could have legal consequences. Confidential communications between a physician and a patient can be privileged. That means the content of the communications may not be admissible as evidence in court. The same is true for confidential communications between a lawyer and a client. Other privileges may apply to communications with clergy, rape counselors and others.

The classic rule is that if someone else hears the confidential communication, the communication will not be privileged. For example, if you tell your doctor something while a nurse or spouse is present, the privilege may not apply.

What are the consequences of sending an otherwise privileged communication in an e-mail that one or both parties know will be scanned by Google? Arguably, the privilege could disappear because a third party has read the message.

The broader issue is how changes in the way ISPs treat e-mail may affect private communication in the electronic world. Today, we may pay little attention to the ISP that provides e-mail service to our personal correspondence. If you send me a personal message, I am likely to respond without even noticing who your ISP is because it really doesn’t matter. If I am trying to avoid spam, I may quarantine e-mail from well-known ISPs that are sources of spam. But otherwise, all ISPs are more or less the same.

That may not be true in the future. If I am a lawyer or doctor, I may choose not to accept or respond to e-mail from a provider that scans messages and adds advertising because of the legal consequences.

What if a message from a physician resulted in the addition of pharmaceutical manufacturer advertising, perhaps for a drug that competes with the one recommended by the physician? Other e-mail users might reject mail from particular ISPs for commercial or political reasons.

What bothers me is the possibility that the Internet will grow even more dysfunctional than it is already. It’s hard enough to deal with e-mail because of spam, viruses, spyware and phishing. We don’t need something else to worry about.

Things may not get bad in the near future. But if Google makes a buck with its new service, other ISPs may do the same thing. I am more concerned about Gmail for its effect on e-mail’s value and utility than for its privacy consequences.

Encryption that is transparent to users may solve many e-mail concerns. It would help if all messages were automatically encrypted when sent and decrypted when read. That isn’t simple to do, and I don’t expect encryption to be a routine service soon. When it is, then neither Google nor anyone else could read messages, and the Gmail controversy would disappear along with the service.

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