Lawmaker Voices Google Privacy Concerns

Google’s plans to include contextually targeted ads in its new email service have come under fire from the California lawmaker who wrote the state’s Do-Not-Call legislation.

“I believe you are embarking on a disaster of enormous proportions, for yourself, and for all of your customers,” State Sen. Liz Figueroa said in a letter to Mountain View, Calif.-based Google.

Figueroa is working on legislation to ban the scanning of personal email for advertising purposes, following the European Union’s stringent consumer privacy guidelines. She hopes to have a draft within a month and she thinks federal authorities will take notice.

The search giant’s newly announced free email offering, dubbed Gmail, will offer enhancements over the offerings of competitors such as Yahoo and MSN. These include the ability to store and search up to 1,000 megabytes of information.

Google’s decision to support the free email offering with contextually targeted ads has already drawn fire from privacy groups such as the World Privacy Forum and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Figueroa called the tradeoff of contextual ads for greater storage and other enhancements a Faustian bargain.

“They will be scanning your private email,” Figueroa told internetnews.com, a sister publication of ClickZ News. “You may say that’s fine and dandy, but I may not like it. To what extent are we giving up privacy?”

Google maintains that because computers will do the content scanning automatically, consumer privacy isn’t violated.

“The technology that presents users with relevant Gmail advertisements operates in the same way as all popular webmail features that process email content to provide a user benefit, such as spam filtering or virus detection,” a company statement said. “These services are widely accepted, trusted, and used by millions everyday [sic].”

Wayne Rosing, Google’s VP of engineering pointed out that when computers filter spam, “they have to look at the email in detail or they can’t find the spam. There’s nothing extraordinary or new going on here.”

Privacy is a top issue for Figueroa, who authored California’s Do-Not-Call legislation to reduce telemarketing calls to consumers. Consumer privacy advocates share Figueroa’s concern.

“Any time you have a consumer service that is going to play such an important role in an individual’s life, like an email account, you have to be extra sensitive to their attitudes and concerns about privacy,” said privacy advocate Ray Everett Church. “Being the repository of a consumer’s email places you at the center of their life. It seems that at this point, Google may not have considered all of the possible concerns that consumers might have.”

Consumers should be familiar with ads on their email. The Web mail interfaces of Yahoo, Hotmail and AOL are chock full of them. Google has not publicly demonstrated Gmail, but said ads will be similar to those on its Web searches, in the form of small text blocks on the right side of the page. For now, only those people who are receiving email via a Gmail account will see the contextual ads.

“Consumers have become accustomed to trading their eyeballs for a useful service,” Church said. “What will determine the success of the product is whether they give good value for the trade-off in targeted advertising.”

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