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Why the Google Gmail controversy is overblown

Apr 20, 20043 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMessaging Apps

* Osterman’s two cents on the Gmail controversy

Google recently announced Gmail, its still-in-beta free e-mail service that will offer two very interesting features: a gigabyte of storage and the ability to search through the message store to find old e-mail content.

The amount of storage that Google will offer is rare in a free e-mail service (one company we know of does this) and, as inbox packrats (like me) will attest, the ability to use Google’s search algorithms to find old e-mail content could be very useful. Other features of the new offering will include a lack of popup advertisements and the grouping of e-mail messages with their replies.

However, there’s a wrinkle that has upset a lot of people: Google plans to scan the content of customers’ e-mail in order to send them targeted advertising based on that content. For example, if you send an e-mail message to someone asking their advice on a new car, you might get advertising sent your way from car manufacturers. Further, you can’t delete your old e-mail in Gmail.

Google’s plan to scan personal e-mail and to retain it indefinitely has created a firestorm of controversy. Privacy International has complained to the British government about Google’s plan to scan private e-mail conversations. Gmail has been declared in Germany illegal because it violates that country’s privacy laws. A California state senator is drafting legislation in opposition to Gmail. The World Privacy Forum and 27 other organizations have asked Google not to offer Gmail until it has resolved the controversy.

I plan to add to the controversy by offering the most radical notion of any of those that have been put forth thus far: if people don’t want to receive targeted advertising based on the content of their e-mail, they shouldn’t sign up for Gmail.

While I don’t necessarily want big companies searching through my e-mail content so that I can receive even more advertising, why should I expect that someone will give me one gigabyte of e-mail storage and useful search tools for nothing in return? Despite the continuing drop in storage prices, a gigabyte of storage still costs several dollars to purchase and manage. Multiply that by a few million users and the investment required to offer a service like Gmail becomes quite expensive indeed.

In the interest of full disclosure, Google is not a client of Osterman Research and I’ve not been asked by anyone to defend Gmail. I just believe that this controversy is getting quite overblown and I wanted to contribute my two cents. To send your two cents back to me, please drop me a line at