Privacy Pressure Applied to Google, Gmail

Google’s still-in-beta free e-mail service continues to gather more jeers than cheers.

Privacy International is the latest to step in line. The group filed a complaint Monday asking the privacy and data protection commissions in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Austria, Australia and Canada to investigate potential invasion of consumers’ privacy.

The international electronic privacy watchdog complained that the proposed service violates several statutes of the European Union’s Data Protection law. Even worse would be the dangerous precedent it would set, the complaint said. Noting that rival Web mail providers had already moved to offer more storage, Privacy International said that the trend toward increased storage and functionality set by Google “will fundamentally change the privacy expectation for electronic communication and will create additional security and data protection threats.”

A Google spokesman said that the company has been giving interviews and briefing privacy organizations, explaining its terms and data retention policies. The company has also clarified the section of its privacy policy dealing with data retention, to make it clearer that deleted e-mails might remain for a short period because of the industry-standard back-up procedures it uses. Gmail also will not load images when an e-mail opens, to prevent confirmations to spammers and protect users from ads or objectionable pictures.

As earnest of its concern for consumer privacy, Google is a sponsor of the Computer Freedom & Privacy Conference being held this week in Berkeley, Calif., and two of its executives will speak at the conference.

On March 31, Google announced it would begin testing Gmail. The free consumer service comes with 1 gigabyte of storage and the ability to easily search through old messages. The price of that is letting the Mountain View, Calif.-based company apply its highly successful keyword-advertising infrastructure to the content of the messages.

Google touted Gmail’s storage service as a benefit to users because they wouldn’t have to delete e-mails to make room for more. However, it also warned that e-mails might be retained on its servers even after users deleted them.

Privacy International asked the EU member commissions, as well the EU Data Protection Working Group, to investigate the privacy problems that Google’s Gmail service poses and, if the findings agreed, to require Google to modify the service or face a regulatory ban on the service.

“It’s critical precisely because Google is such a dominant firm,” said Mark Rothenberg, chairman of Privacy International. He said those who e-mail people with Gmail addresses will have their missives dragged into the scanning process even though they didn’t sign up for it. “Even people who sign up for the service shouldn’t be put in the position of trading privacy for e-mail,” he said.

Rothenberg said Google is being quite secretive about its plans. “It’s not clear what key terms will be and who will have access [to stored e-mails],” he said.

The latest outcry follows an open letter from the World Privacy Forum and 30 other organizations calling upon Google to suspend its Gmail service until the privacy issues are adequately addressed. The letter also called on Google to clarify its written information policies regarding data retention and data sharing among its business units.

California State Senator Liz Figueroa last week sent an open letter to the search leader, saying the proposed service would be disastrous. She told that Google responded to that letter and that, “We’ve agreed to disagree on the issue.”

She said Google hasn’t budged from its position that the proposed service complies with good consumer privacy practices — and she still intends to draft state legislation banning scans of e-mail within the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, Rothenberg, who is also executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that if Google remains so unresponsive, his organization will file a formal complaint with the FTC.

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