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Google Downplays Report of Possible Gmail Changes

Google denied reports yesterday that it is considering changes to its new e-mail service to placate privacy concerns.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Mountain View, CA, search engine is actively considering alterations to Gmail that would include a way for e-mail customers to choose not to receive paid listings next to some of their messages. It quoted Google co-founder Sergey Brin saying the idea was “being batted about.”

Such a move could considerably reduce the amount of ad inventory created by Gmail for Google's AdSense program. Google spokesman David Krane said the story, and subsequent news reports, overstated internal company discussions of Gmail changes.

“We're in the earliest phases of testing, and we are actively soliciting and collecting feedback on different variables,” he said.

Krane said Brin's comments meant that all aspects of the service are open to changes, just as with any Google products in testing. The ad system has not been singled out for possible changes, he said.

“We're not that far along in the process,” he said.

In the Journal, Brin admitted that Google was caught off guard by the storm of criticism ignited by the announcement of its Gmail service, which is under test by about 1,000 users. Gmail offers users 250 to 500 times the storage space of Web e-mail providers Hotmail and Yahoo. In exchange, Google scans incoming messages and periodically displays text listings next to them related to the content.

Privacy groups have protested. Last week, 28 privacy and consumer-advocacy organizations asked Google to suspend Gmail's launch until privacy concerns are settled. On April 9, California legislator Liz Figueroa said she would seek a bill to make illegal the scanning of e-mail to place advertising. Figueroa, a state senator, sent a letter to Google, calling the text ads “a Faustian bargain.”

In addition to the scanning of messages to display ads, privacy groups object to Google's data policies not pledging to keep search and e-mail information separate, and its plan to store e-mail messages, even those deleted, for an unlimited time.

A move to make the display of ads optional would curtail the potential payoff from Gmail for Google advertisers. If it caught on with the broader public, Gmail would greatly expand the inventory for AdSense listings, which appear on sites like NYTimes.com, Forbes.com and thousands of small Web sites. Leading Web e-mail service Yahoo Mail, for example, received 8.1 million page views in February, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

Gmail is not alone in scanning e-mail messages. Web e-mail providers like Yahoo and Hotmail all scan incoming e-mail messages to determine whether they are spam. Privacy groups have objected to Gmail's system because it is used for commercial purposes.

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