Google's new e-mail service, Gmail, has triggered a privacy backlash and called attention to an unsettling side effect of digital life -- that electronic traces of our personal histories are being created in places and ways no one dreamed of a few years ago.
But I do not think Google is making a misstep with Gmail, and I hope the Web-search company doesn't back down from its plan to offer loads of free e-mail storage in return for showing targeted ads next to messages. I view it as an important experiment in the Internet's drive to make advertising more relevant.
I have been testing Gmail (gmail.google.com) for weeks and find the value it delivers -- including innovative sorting features and a gigabyte of free storage -- outweighs any worries I have over Google's computers scanning my mail for such key words as "flowers" or "cameras," then displaying matching ads alongside messages. The service, launched as an experiment a month ago with a few thousand users, is planned for general release this summer or fall.
But already the outcry is fierce. Dozens of privacy advocacy groups jointly sent Google an open letter urging it to deep-six the whole idea of targeting ads based on message contents. A California state senator recently introduced a bill to outlaw services such as Gmail in her state, and an international privacy group filed complaints about Gmail with governments in Europe and elsewhere.
There even appears to be a campaign afoot to proclaim Gmail "too creepy" to risk replying to messages sent by Gmail users. A Web site (gmail-is-too-creepy.com) offers boilerplate text that people can use in explaining why they can't send mail to Gmail.com accounts. It outlines four main objections, including the idea that Gmail's vast storage will encourage people to store their e-mail online for longer, which in turn will make these archives tempting targets for government snoops with subpoenas. The site opines further that "the potential for abuse is staggering" if Google builds a database of keywords associated with people's e-mail addresses and personal messages.
Ads are matched in real time
But according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, no such database exists, nor will it. "We don't store anything related to what ads show up in your e-mail messages. That is one of the misconceptions," Brin said this week. "The other really important point is there is no data going out to advertisers or other third parties. That is a really key point."
Brin said Gmail's ad-targeting system keeps no records of which ads are shown to whom. Ads are matched in real time at the moment a user calls up a message, and then the system essentially forgets those details. Other than some minimal registration information -- at the moment, Gmail's sign-up page asks fewer questions than those of most Web-mail services -- the only personal data Google stores are the actual messages themselves.
Lost in the debate are the many technical pluses of Gmail: a design that loads pages more quickly than those of rivals, a clever way of grouping mail to display related messages all at once, and the ability to search e-mail with Google's search engine. For me, Gmail's unusual interface takes some getting used to, especially since I'm a fan of sorting files into folders. Gmail replaces folders with labels that you create and apply to messages.
I don't buy Google's contention that a gigabyte of free storage means you'll never have to delete another message again, but I agree that having so much storage is valuable -- particularly since messages stored online are more readily accessible to folks like me who travel a lot. (For that reason, I've been paying Yahoo $59 a year to get 100 megabytes of mail storage.)
Without Gmail's ad-targeting system, Google would be hard-pressed to fund all that storage it proposes to give away. The site could abandon its gigabyte-sized giveaway -- but I suspect Google realizes it will take something extraordinary to lure longtime users away from Yahoo Mail, Hotmail and other popular Web mail services.
In some key technological aspects, Gmail works no differently from those other sites. All these Web-mail options demand that you trust a distant site to store and send your e-mail reliably. None lets you peer behind the scenes to verify that they're doing what they promised with your e-mail. Brin noted that Gmail's scanning system isn't that technically different from the message-scanning that most other Web-mail services undertake to detect viruses and filter spam.
Personally, if I were to fret about future abuses of my online data trails, I'd be more worried about sites like Expedia, which stores months of my detailed travel history, or Amazon, which keeps an enormous wish-list of books I hope to read one day.
The Internet economy
The reality seems to be that targeted advertising is well on its way to becoming an important part of the Internet economy, helping defray the cost of online content and services. Anyone who thinks they aren't already being shown ads targeted to their electronic histories must be unaware that large networks like Yahoo routinely profile their registered users and track what they view online. Yahoo then uses the information it gathers to show ads customized to people's surfing histories on Yahoo -- including targeted ads alongside messages on its Web-mail pages.
I can't predict how many people will click on Gmail's ads, but I like the fact that they are text-only, brief and not as big or flashy as the annoying ones Yahoo and Microsoft show their e-mail users. In my test, fewer than half my Gmail messages contained ads. They were small, subtle links resembling the ads Google currently shows alongside its Web search results and on articles at some news sites. As for relevancy, some were comically literal, a few were directly related to the messages and others seemed totally irrelevant.
Brin said he believes text-based targeted ads eventually will improve advertising by making it seem more relevant to people than the "brain-washing" emotional campaigns that dominate TV. "These text ads are not trying to communicate feeling; they are related to a subject," he said. "I think that is a cultural improvement. It teaches people to think more."