Privacy Concerns Dog Google's E-Mail Plans

Google's plan to offer a free Web e-mail system with nearly unlimited storage has run into opposition from consumer groups that claim it would invade users' privacy.

A total of 28 privacy and consumer organizations petitioned Google to suspend plans for a widespread launch of its Gmail service until it addresses the groups' privacy concerns.

The letter, sent to Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, said Gmail's data-retention policies and plans to scan e-mails with search technology “raise significant and troubling questions.”

Two aspects of Gmail are at issue. First is its intent to scan incoming e-mail messages for their context and match them up with advertiser listings sold through its AdSense service. Second, privacy groups object to Google's data policies of 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.

Google officials were unavailable for comment. Page has called the privacy criticism “crazy.”

One United Kingdom group, Privacy International, protested to the UK's information minister that Gmail violates European privacy law, according to Reuters.

Gmail uses Google's search technology with an Internet e-mail service, organizes e-mail by topic and lets users search for e-mails similarly to using Google's search engine. Gmail users will not need to use files to organize their e-mail. The service would give users 1,000 megabytes of storage space, 250 to 500 times the storage of free e-mail services like MSN's Hotmail and Yahoo, enough to store 500,000 pages of e-mails.

Gmail searches incoming messages for their context and serves paid listings next to them by using its search technology to determine messages' content. Gmail's payoff could be huge for Google and its advertisers. In February, Yahoo Mail garnered 8.1 million page views, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Similar consumer uptake would greatly expand the ad inventory for Google's AdSense program.

In Gmail's privacy policy, Google emphasizes that a human editor will not read e-mails. Google's search technology determines messages' context. Further, Google has said it has no plans to link search behavior and e-mail activity, though it has not explicitly ruled out doing so.

Groups such as the World Privacy Forum, the Consumer Federation of America and the Electronic Privacy Information Center signed the letter.

“The public should know the implications,” said Robert Guerra, a Toronto-based privacy advocate. “Google should be much more open and reach out to the community and tell them their policies.”

Though he finds the privacy criticisms unfair, Jupiter Research analyst Nate Elliott said perceptions could matter more than reality.

“It doesn't matter if you do anything wrong, it matters if people think you did something wrong,” he said. “They needed to be more prepared for questions like this.”

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

“Inserting third-party content from third-party advertisers in incoming e-mails is fundamentally different than removing harmful viruses and unwanted spam,” the privacy groups write.

The barrage of criticism Google faces over Gmail is reminiscent of earlier privacy controversies. In the late 1990s, online ad server DoubleClick raised the ire of privacy groups over its cookie policy. The controversy came to a head in 1999 when it purchased offline database company Abacus Direct and indicated it would link users' online behavior with their offline buying habits. DoubleClick disavowed the plan in 2000.

“This is getting to the dangerous territory,” Elliott said. “So much of Google's lead [in search] is based on their reputation.”

Guerra said DoubleClick's decision to work with privacy groups and give users the option of installing a blank cookie that does not track Web behavior could be a model for how Google can ease privacy concerns.

“If they have the technology to do this, it's not that difficult to put in an opt-out system,” he said.

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