The meme most media outlets have given to their second day coverage of Gmail is that it gives folks “the creeps.” In essence, the idea that machines will be reading folks’ email freaks a lot of observers out. Privacy advocates are connecting the dots on mailing lists like Farber’s IP, and Cnet, the LA Times, and Wired News have written stories turning on this angle.
I think the jury is out on this issue. If people willingly give up their privacy to get a gig of storage and the ability to search their email (email search is one of the biggest search hairballs out there, IMHO), who’s to say that’s wrong? On the other hand, this does create a lot of potential for trouble, given how much information can now be connected. If you get on the wrong side of the government, for example, and use GMail and Google search (and Orkut…), you had better hope the Patriot Act has been repealed. But this is true if you’re using Yahoo, AOL, or MSFT as well. All these companies would have to give up your personal information to a government demand. It’s just that with Google, the power of that information working together is so obvious, and is, in a way, made available to you via a business model which – thanks to contextual advertising – makes it economical for you to have a gig of storage and a whole new interface to mail (search). Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. But I do think it’d be very wise for Google to lay out a white paper explaining all of this in intricate detail, a link to which is prominently displayed to all Gmail users.
Trust me, Google may be the first company to show the general public the power of personal information leveraged against search, but they won’t be the last. Think about Amazon for a microsecond…