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Gmail scanning policy draws criticism

Before it is even available to the general public, Google’s proposed e-mail service has run into problems with a policy some consider an invasion of privacy.

More than six months before Google plans to unveil it to the public, Gmail, as the service is called, has faced criticism on several fronts from consumer-rights activists who are at odds with Google’s e-mail-scanning policy.

Gmail functions much like other free online e-mail services, such as Yahoo! and Hotmail, but differs in that it will offer subscribers one gigabyte of storage, which is 500 times more than Hotmail’s two megabytes of storage.

To get a better understanding of the difference, the one gigabyte of storage, equivalent to 1,000 megabytes, would allow consumers to store about 500,000 pieces of mail. There is, however, one guideline for using the service that is creating controversy. The policy in question allows Google to scan a subscriber’s e-mail message to find certain words that can be used to direct text-based advertising content to the user.

In addition to scanning e-mail sent by the user, Google also plans to scan the messages received through the service in order to allow for wide-topic coverage. Google has assured consumers that this process would not be invasive because a computer will perform the scanning.

For example, someone writing to his or her friend about a sexual problem may receive advertisements for products such as Viagra; even though he or she may not be interested.

Google executives said the policy was adopted so that they would be able to turn a profit due to the large amount of space they are providing users. The company also said not all e-mails would contain advertisements.

Although representatives said they will keep e-mail content private, consumer rights activists say this practice can be likened to the post office being able to open customers’ mail or the phone company tapping a person’s phone.

Privacy advocates are not content with Google’s practices and feel the program may set a precedent for other e-mail services. They say this could create an environment where eyes are always watching everything they send. Groups such as Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and Electronic Privacy Information Center have a problem with Google’s policy for storing permanent “shadow copies” of sent and received e-mail. These copies would survive the deletion of the originals.

Adding to the concerns of the advocates is Google’s privacy policy that states, “residual copies of e-mails may remain on our systems, even … after the termination of your account.”

In other words, Google would still be able to keep e-mail messages sent through the system for an unspecified amount of time after subscribers have cancelled their accounts.

This practice, known as vast data collection, could also find Google in legal trouble because it is banned under communication protections in the United Kingdom and other Europeans countries.

A group of 28 privacy and civil liberties groups have addressed this and other problems with the service in a letter to Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, in which they call for the pair to reconsider their plans for Gmail.

In addition, Google may soon be facing other legal problems in the form of a trademark infringement suit on the part of an independent investment research firm whose owners claim the rights to the Gmail trademark.

The Market Age, a London-based company, said Tuesday that Gmail is part of its “Pronet” Web-based research application service, and it plans to fight to keep it that way. The company’s group chief executive said Google has yet to contact him about the matter.

Whereas these legal problems may be of future concern to Google, the company may face a more severe public relations sting from consumers who have grown to love the company for its simplicity in the face of other search-style services as Yahoo! This will prove to be a problem if consumers start to lose trust in the privately owned company that has tried to remain dedicated to providing a clean-running service.

Although this could possibly turn away some users, it has not stopped others who have been lured by the thought of having all their e-mail in one place. Officials at Google have not released any specific numbers but said in an Associated Press article that hundreds of thousands of people have shown interest in the service.

If these numbers are correct, it could show that people are willing to forgo a little privacy in favor of mass storage capabilities. This could also signal that bad publicity for Google has done them nothing but good.

With a few months until Google plans to reveal the service to the public, only time will tell if the activists’ concerns will force the company to change its planned policy.