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California Lawmaker to Google: Do Not Gmail

The California senatorwho authored the state's Do-Not-Call legislation has serious privacy concerns about Google's proposed e-mail service.

"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 the Mountain View, Calif., company.

Figueroa is working on legislation to ban the scanning of personal e-mail 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 leader said its free Gmail service will offer enhancements over rival offerings, including a more useful interface and the ability to store and search up to 1,000 megabytes of information.

In return, users must accept the same kind of contextually targeted advertising that they see when they use Google to search. That, Figueroa said, is a Faustian bargain.

"They will be scanning your private e-mail," Figueroa told internetnews.com. "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 the content scanning will be done automatically by computer, 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 e-mail 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 [every day]."

Privacy is a top issue for Figueroa, who authored California Do-Not-Call legislation to reduce telemarketing calls to consumers.

She said one concern she has about Gmail is that people sharing an e-mail account, such as a parent and child or two spouses, might infer information from the ads. "What if my daughter gets onto the account and wonders why mom is starting to get e-mail on this issue?" she asked. "If we're talking about medical issues, there's lots of sensitive information out there."

Google hasn't released specifics of how the contextual ad process would work. But it said it will take steps to insure that adult-oriented advertising isn't delivered. Ads will be reviewed and approved by Google editors before they are syndicated into the e-mail service. Only "Family-Safe" ads, the company's strictest classification, will be included.

Consumer privacy advocates share some of 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 e-mail 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 e-mail 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 e-mail. The Web mail interfaces of Yahoo!, Hotmail and AOL are chock full of them, and users typically get a new one alongside the text of each message they open. 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 e-mail 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."

Both Church and Anne Mitchell, president of advisory organization Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy, said as long as Google provides a very clear explanation of its policies, consumers should be free to decide for themselves. "If it's extremely clear about what's being done, who are we to interfere with a consensual relationship?" Mitchell asked.

Mitchell said more worrisome than linking ads to e-mail content is Google's archiving proposal. "If I can do a really cool search on my entire body of spam, what can the feds do to the entire compilation? The privacy implication is staggering." She also pointed out that ISPs can already view their users' e-mail.

Figueroa said she thinks her proposal will bring national attention to the privacy concerns. "California always leads on these issues," she said.