Since the first privacy concerns were raised nearly two months ago, one of the smartest things Google has done in response is to give accounts to a bunch of journalists (I was on the list, but have not really used the account – I’m too swamped to conjur up a reason to fill a secondary account, and in any case I’m writing a book in which Google plays a critical role, so the idea of running my email through their servers feels a bit…odd, to say the least. I can just see my sources at Yahoo or Microsoft wondering whether I’m capable of fairness as they send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org…).
Anyway, those journalists who did use the service almost universally praised it. As a breed journalists are prone to piling on when they identify what they believe to be a clever or counter-intuitive meme. Gmail offered them a pretty prime opportunity to do just that. Most caught the counter-spin on Gmail’s scanning of email – to wit, everyone else does it (Hotmail, Yahoo etc) so why jump on Google? They are right, and it was a brilliant move on Google’s part to point that out. Now the press is full of articles beating up the privacy advocates, and as I mentioned earlier the California legislator who introduced the grandstanding Gmail privacy bill has modified it to allow scanning.
Google’s page points to all these journalist’s reviews as proof that the whole issue has been misconstrued, and in some regards they’re right. But I think the debate is light on a very important, larger point. It’s not that Gmail scans your email, or that it might take a while for duplicates of your mails to be deleted off the system. It’s that with a gigabyte of storage, user habits with regard to email change entirely, and we start to keep our entire computing life online, moving massive amounts of personal and private communications and files into a new realm of “discoverability” – from the ephemeral to the eternal.
Very much to their credit, Google addresses this issue, and acknowledges their role as market leader requires they be held to “a higher standard.” But it’s buried down at the bottom, and it doesn’t take the logical next step, which is to call directly for clarification around providing email and files stored on a third party servers the same legal status that they already enjoy on our private machines and as they are transmitted over networks, thanks to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
In any case, here’s the language that I think stands Google in good stead on this issue:
Let’s be clear: there are issues with email privacy, and these issues are common to all email providers. The main issue is that the contents of your messages are stored on mailservers for some period of time; there is always a danger that these messages can be obtained and used for purposes that may harm you. There exists a real opportunity for misuse of your information by governments, as well as by your email provider. Careful consideration of the relevant issues, close scrutiny of email providers’ practices and policies, and suitable vigilance and enforcement of appropriate legislation are the best defenses against misuse of your information. The only alternative is to avoid new technology altogether, and forego the benefits it provides.
Various people and organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), have been helping to focus the debate on the real issues surrounding privacy and email. We’ve welcomed their input on Gmail and are engaging in a productive dialogue with them, and others.
When we began the limited test of Gmail, we had policies that were substantively no different from those of all other major webmail services. However, we understand that as a leader in our industry, we are held to a higher standard. We don’t believe that the questions around email and privacy are resolved, and we are working to better understand what the issues currently are, and what they will be in the future. We are keenly interested in addressing these issues head-on, and in helping to fashion guidelines and public policies that protect the privacy of not only Gmail users, but everyone. We’d like your help in that process.
Gmail is still in a limited test period. While we’re working to improve Gmail and make it more widely available, we welcome your feedback and suggestions on the service and its features. We encourage users and interested groups around the world to share their thoughts on our policies and procedures by writing to us at email@example.com.
Net net: a good move on Google’s part, and a sign the company recognizes some of the larger issues at play.
– Overview from MediaPost here.