I’m not sure that the degree of shock being expressed within the press about Google “reading” email is altogether justified. A good example is the London Guardian’s headline of “Don’t expect privacy when sending to Gmail”, arising from a defense filed against a claim that Google violates U.S. wire-tap laws. That suit alleges that Google “unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people’s private email messages”. Cue expressions of horror.
Simple economics dictate that Google could not provide the free Gmail service to people without coming up with some method of generating revenue. As Google points out in their Policies and Principles “Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services you use free of charge”. Seeing that Google is extremely good at placing ads, it surely follows that they would attempt to use information provided by users to sharpen their placement techniques.
It’s also surely true that you enter into a form of a devil’s bargain when you use “free” services like those provided by Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo! You provide your data in return for being able to use the service; the service provider makes use of that data according to its needs, whether that is to improve the functionality of the service or to extract economic advantage from the data. You’d be naïve if you imagined that a “free” service is provided out of the goodness of anyone’s heart, even if the provider avows not to do evil.
Google’s Terms of Service lays out how they can use content uploaded to their sites, which includes the content of messages sent or delivered to Gmail:
When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.
As the motion filed by Google’s lawyers to dismiss the suit that alleges that Google criminally intercepts email points out, “Plaintiffs’ theory of liability would prevent ECS providers from providing features that allow users to sort their emails using automated filters or even to search their emails for specific words—because these features necessarily involve the scanning of email content and would thus be an illegal “interception” under Plaintiffs’ theory.” In other words, all the email filters used by people to sort incoming messages and perform actions such as removing junk mail automatically could be covered by the alleged interception.
Email servers and other components such as anti-spam services have to perform the same kind of automated analysis of message content to remove unwanted email and apply rules. Do you worry when Exchange or any other email server applies rules to process your email? I doubt it…
The underlying problem argued by the suit is that Google uses the information that they extract through analysis to decide what ads should be displayed to users whereas email filters simply process inbound email and forget what they discovered as soon as they have finished with messages.
Google’s lawyers also argue that “all Plaintiffs who are Gmail users consented to the automated scanning of their emails (including for purposes of delivering targeted advertising) in exchange for using the Gmail service”, which seems to be right on the money. If you agree to something in exchange for a service, you can hardly then complain afterwards that the provider is doing something that they said they would do. That seems consistent with the Terms of Service referred to above.
In fact, Google holds a lot more information about a user than the data extracted from Gmail. Browse the Google Dashboard and you’ll discover that Google knows about your calendar, documents, pictures, alerts, contacts, the videos you’ve viewed and about the Android devices that you use. That’s enough to build a pretty comprehensive view of anyone.
In 2010, Eric Schmidt famously said that Google aims “to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” He followed that remark up with “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” The management policy set in Mountain View seems to be pretty clear. Use the data gathered from users (with their permission given by signing up for Google’s services) to improve matters more or less until they get to a point where Google knows what you think about. I imagine that harvesting information from email is quite helpful in chasing that goal.
Given the straightforward claim made by Google to use content uploaded to their services, you have a simple choice to make. If you don’t like the thought of Google’s automated processes analyzing the content of your messages, you can simply switch email service and sign up with another provider. Outlook.com, for example, provides a good service without ads popping up beside messages. But given that your Gmail email address is probably well known to your acquaintances, it will take effort to remove yourself completely from the service. The effort required to move email providers is one reason why people stay put, even if their messages are being analyzed. But then again, the content of the vast majority of email is banal and uninteresting, which probably accounts for some of the weird and wonderful ads that I see when using Gmail. It is, after all, difficult to make sense of a pile of rubbish.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for consumer rights and believe that privacy should be respected by those who provide services. I just have a hard time with the notion that a company that provides a free service that’s funded by advertising that tells potential users that they will make use of content provided by users is then attacked because they do exactly that. We all have brains. Maybe it’s time to engage those organs when selecting an email provider.
Follow Tony @12Knocksinna