- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

A small group of Internet users has started a campaign to provide free e-mail accounts with big storage capacity to soldiers posted overseas, allowing them to save e-mail messages, large photos and video clips from families and friends back home.

The Gmail4Troops campaign began after Internet consultant Drew Olanoff, and actor and author Wil Wheaton heard complaints from soldiers that their military-issued e-mail accounts lacked adequate storage space.

Gmail, a free Web-based e-mail service created by Internet search company Google, offers 1 gigabyte of space, or enough for more than 500,000 e-mail pages. The accounts also have special features that allow users to search e-mail messages.

“Gmail will give soldiers the opportunity to save a big volume of photos, sound files and videos sent by their family back home,” said Mr. Wheaton, a former “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actor, who has advertised the initiative on his personal Web site.

“I thought it would be a really kind and thoughtful gesture … some people are unwilling or unable to put together a care package. I thought it would be something that would be easy to do.”

Google, which is not involved in the campaign and declined to comment on it, started the Gmail service in April by inviting a select number of people to test the service. Since then, it has expanded its subscribership base by allowing existing subscribers to invite a limited number of people to sign up for accounts as well. Demand for the invitations has been fierce, with some users auctioning theirs off for as much as $200 on EBay.

Gmail4Troops has directed 400 invitations to soldiers, more than half of whom are posted in Iraq or Afghanistan. Soldiers and Gmail users are matched automatically through the group’s Web site, gmail4troops.com, and are given the option of becoming pen pals.

Whizardries, a technology consultancy in Gatesville, Texas, and the nonprofit Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy are helping to manage the site and databases.

The military already offers free e-mail accounts, but those accounts have a limited storage capacity, forcing soldiers to delete messages and large files that they would prefer to save, according to several letters sent by soldiers to the Gmail4Troops campaign.

Soldiers stationed far away were particularly troubled by the need to delete pictures and video clips of family and friends.

The “project is the one way that those who cannot be there to see their toddler walk those first steps, or feel that sense of pride rush through their bodies as their ‘little one’ graduates from high school can at least watch those special occasions unfold,” wrote one unidentified soldier in a letter posted on the project’s Web site. “With Gmail’s large storage capacity, receiving pictures and videos by e-mail is no longer a problem.”

Mr. Olanoff referred to the campaign as a “pay it forward type of thing.”

“If you’re over there for two years … you don’t want to delete things,” he said.

The buzz around Gmail has been intense, but not always positive. Privacy advocates have criticized the service because it includes a program that inserts targeted advertising into e-mail based on words found in the message content.

But Google has defended the service by explaining that the messages are only read by the recipient, and that the software scanning the message works no differently than filters that block unwanted e-mail.

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