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State Senator Seeks To Block Google Gmail

By Elizabeth Millard
Apr 13, 2004 10:30 AM PT

Google's Web mail service, Gmail, has drawn fire from privacy advocates since its launch April 1st. The latest to speak out is California state senator Liz Figueroa, who is drafting legislation to block the free e-mail service. Figueroa, a Democrat, noted that she is moving to block Gmail because she believes its e-mail content scanning reduces users' privacy.

State Senator Seeks To Block Google Gmail

Last week, Gmail was sharply criticized in an open letter from 28 electronic privacy organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the World Privacy Forum. Figueroa also sent a letter to Google last week, with a strong suggestion that the company scrap its plan to include scanning of e-mail message content.

Figueroa told the E-Commerce Times that Google executives spoke with her Monday, but the outcome was not what she wanted.

"We came to the consensus that we've agreed to disagree," she said. "We view it very differently. They see [content scanning] as a service. I see it as invasion of privacy."

Government Intervention

Figueroa's legislation is already being drafted, and she said she expects it will be completed in a month.

She noted that the legislation would not block Google from launching Gmail entirely. Instead, it would only require that the company provide customers with full disclosure about how their information is being used and the degree to which their e-mail content will be scanned.

"We're not trying to outlaw the service," she said. "We just want to make sure that all parties are aware of what's going on. If you're fine with having advertising put into your e-mail, then that's okay. But I might not be fine with it. And if I'm not told about what's happening, that's not okay."

Future Concerns

Figueroa also expressed concern that even if users agree to the conditions set forth by Google, the practice could grow out of control.

"I could be e-mailing someone about a soccer game," she noted, "and suddenly I'm getting e-mails about professional games and equipment. I could even have the auto industry telling me which minivan to buy."

Figueroa said she believes the program is a "Faustian bargain" that undermines the expectation of privacy in communication. In a press release on the issue, the senator compared the practice to letting the phone company listen in on calls and interrupt at any time for an advertisement.

"In our world of technology, e-mail is viewed as private communication, just like written letters," she said. "So, a lot of people feel strongly that no one should be reviewing your e-mail, even if it's a machine."

Growing Grumbles

When Gmail was announced April 1st, it was notable for its ambitious aim to offer users 1 GB of storage. Since this is more than 100 times the storage offered by other free services, technology observers posited that Google's service would be popular among users.

Analysts also noted that the move could even force other companies, such as Yahoo and Microsoft, to boost their own free storage offerings.

But the tradeoff for all that storage is what concerns privacy advocates. In exchange for so much capacity, users must agree to let Google's machines scan their incoming e-mail to deliver targeted ads within e-mail messages based on the content.

Google maintains that because the scanning is done by machine and not by humans, users' privacy is protected.

Larger Issues

However, Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, told the E-Commerce Times that "scanning of text really violates implicit trust, and that's a significant problem."

She added that privacy advocates are anxious about where this trend might lead. Even if Google is exemplary in keeping information private, others that use the technology might not be so pure of heart.

"E-mail is now used in courts as evidence," Dixon said. "Will there be e-mail scanning to obtain a subpoena? The answer is that with this technology, it could be quite probable. And that's just one of the doors that it opens."

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