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Hot on the Web

Paternalism run amok

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 7, 2004
(Issue 2219, Law Enforcement)

You're a child, unable to protect yourself. Unable to make your own decisions about your privacy, not to be allowed to negotiate on your own behalf. Apparently unable to venture online without Big Brother holding your hand.

That, at least, seems to be the opinion of the European Union, a California legislator and the self-proclaimed "privacy rights" movement.

All three of the above-mentioned players are scrambling to try to either force Google to change the basic economic model for its pending free e-mail service or, failing that, to simply ban it.

In the name of freedom, of course.

What has the do-gooders all bent of shape is that Google's "Gmail" service will place advertisements in your e-mail based on the presence of certain keywords.

According to the privacy freaks, this represents a "spying" on your e-mail – as if Google staff members are sitting around poring over billions of messages a day figuring out what ads to put in there.

The technology is already in use in Google's AdSense and AdWords online advertising – in which Web pages contain code that feeds ads from Google's tailored to fit the contents of that page. So for instance, if you have a page dedicated to music, the Google ads on the page will likely be for music-related products and/or services. (You can check out the Google ad program and see it in action by going to the AllMusicGuide page and simply click on any of the band or album links off the front page; the Google ads will be on the right-hand side of those interior pages.)

Google is offering up to a gigabyte of storage for its free Gmail accounts – compared to the usual 5-10Mb with most free e-mail accounts (Yahoo, Netscape, Hotmail). And Google is upfront about the inclusion of advertising, and say it's likely to be tailored to the contents of your message. So if you write to a friend about the travails of your favorite sports team, your friend might see an ad at the top of your e-mail from a ticket agency or a sports memorabilia company. And when they write back to you, you'd see similar ads.

Fighting against freedom

Not everyone will want to make that trade-off. Some people won't be comfortable with Google's robots searching for keywords in their e-mail, and will take their business elsewhere.

Fair enough – that's how a free society works.

But that sort of choice isn't enough for the fanatics – they want to take the Google option away from you.

Privacy International, some sort of self-proclaimed "privacy watchdog" (talk about an oxymoron!), has already filed a complaint against Gmail with the British government, claiming it violates privacy laws because Google says some of your messages may continue to exist in archives even after you delete them. Which sounds as if the Privacy International folks have never run any kind of network – or at least never backed it up.

And Beth Givens, who runs the one-woman-show Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, told the Associated Press that, "Consumers really need to look this gift horse in the mouth because it has rotten teeth and bad breath."

Consumers who really value their right to represent themselves might not wonder, though, if Google doesn't smell a little better than know-it-all activists who would make our decisions for us.

Treat us like adults

One California lawmaker has vowed to introduce a bill to ban Gmail, at least in its present form.

Such contempt for her constituents from Sen. Liz Figueroa, a Democrat from Fremont, ought to be of more concern to voters than whether one free e-mail service is trying a new model in a very competitive market.

The model being offered for such heavy-handed intervention is the minimum wage laws, in which the government actively prohibits you from selling your own services below a certain price.

But to compare the labor market – which is inherently inequitable between employer and employee – to the free e-mail market isn't comparing apples and oranges so much as comparing watermelons and underwear.

Nobody needs to have Google e-mail – which is a good thing seeing as Google has never offered an e-mail service before. If you don't want the content-based advertising, go to Hotmail. Go to Yahoo. Go to Netscape. There are a multitude of choices out there.

But some people – Google is betting quite a few, obviously – will be willing to take part in such a program.

As adults, they ought to have that right.

As long as Google is forthright and upfront about the details of the service, about how your identity is being handled, and sticks to its end of things, it ought to be a legal transaction.

No matter what the privacy nuts think.