Free e-mail isn’t worth the loss of privacy

Google, the popular on-line search engine, is attempting to expand into the free e-mail market, competing with rivals Yahoo and MSN’s Hotmail. Google proposes a new service to Internet users called Gmail. The service would include one gigabyte worth of storage, up to 200 times more than some of its rivals.

Gmail was heavily criticized, however, when it became known that the service will scan user emails to offer targeted advertisements to subscribers. This intrusion should not be acceptable to users.

BBC News reported that Senator Liz Figueroa, D-Calif., calls Gmail “an invasion of privacy.” Figueroa believes the problem is Google’s plan to make revenue from users agreeing to both their incoming and outgoing e-mail being scanned for targeted advertising. She went on to say the service would be like “having a massive billboard in the middle of your home.”

Google’s Internet search already offers advertisements on its site based on search terms. To scan e-mail, Gmail would use similar technology. The targeted adverts would use key words for posting advertisements in e-mail. Mentioning being in the market for a new car in an e-mail could garner unsolicited responses from car salesmen, car-insurance companies and other car-related companies.

Yahoo and other competing Web sites already use similar methods, but they are used to select which banner will appear at the top of a search page.

Google claims the content of its subscriber’s e-mails would remain private because the process they will use will be fully automated. The company also provided a statement claiming they intend to work with data protection authorities across Europe to ensure concerns are resolved, as the BBC reported.

However, UK-based campaign group Privacy International, complained to the UK’s information commissioner that the terms of service did not allow users to delete their e-mails permanently, even though European data protection legislation provides their users with full control over all their own communications.

Gmail will not be the first mail system to scan users’ electronic communication, nevertheless, legislation to grant U.S. users the same privacy rights enjoyed by other Western nations is long overdue.

The abundant amount of space Gmail offers free to subscribers may well tempt many to ignore privacy concerns and sign up. Users must be aware, however, that the extra megabytes come at a cost. The time and convenience afforded by the extra storage may well be offset by the time spent dredging through spam.