The Google Internet search engine embodies the classic tale of the garage-based startup taking on industry Goliaths (like Yahoo) and winning. Upcoming is a likely $25 billion initial public offering.
But Google isn’t without detractors. Some fear Google’s supposed market dominance. Still others object to the particular mechanics of Google’s search technology, which ranks a given Web page based on the number of other pages linking to it. Some even think Google tinkers inappropriately with search results. But Google was vindicated after being sued by rival Search King, which alleged manipulation of search results to lower its ranking. According to the judge, “page ranks are opinion,” and protected by the First Amendment.
The latest debate has arisen over the potential privacy hazards of Google’s new e-mail service, “Gmail.” Other search engines, like Yahoo, have long offered free e-mail. Latecomer Google plans to offer a full gigabyte of e-mail storage, many times that available today from the popular Yahoo and Hotmail free services; their few megabytes are consumed by a song file or a few attached documents.
But nothing is free: The Gmail tradeoff is that e-mails a user receives will be scanned by machine and advertisements, based on trigger words, will appear within one’s browser. The method is rather like the tailored ads that appear whenever one searches the Web, except that it responds to key words or phrases typed in the body of a message. If your correspondence mentions NASCAR or The Dixie Chicks, for instance, you might see ads for motor oil or a concert tour. Google promises that Gmail messages will remain private. Yet over two dozen unconvinced groups have demanded that Google abandon the approach. But as the Progressive Policy Institute has pointed out, any e-mail provider that wants to scan e-mails can already do so; mail scanning is already common in spam filters. So Gmail is not exactly an invasion of privacy.
Nonetheless, it can be risky to store so much of one’s personal or business correspondence online, as Gmail’s ample storage would encourage — but that is a cybersecurity issue existing entirely apart from Gmail. Security problems abound on the Internet at large.
Another controversial Gmail feature is that e-mails may remain on Google’s servers even after the user deletes them from view. That could make an attractive target for hackers, and might be something Google changes simply because of user objection. Of course, just about anything posted online elsewhere lives forever. The Wayback Machine stores outdated and vanished Web pages for posterity; and, years ago, it was apparent that one’s newsgroup postings were immortal in cyberspace.
Users must weigh the tradeoffs. Indeed, if you’re a Gmail user, your friends might recoil at sending a message to your Gmail address until more assurances are forthcoming.
The competitive marketplace can resolve these tricky matters. However some lawmakers are needlessly butting in already. Despite the tech downturn, California, unfortunately, can be counted on not to outsource bad legislation: State Sen. Liz Figueroa, who thinks Gmail is “an absolute invasion of privacy,” is drafting legislation to ban the service.
The idea of government, which routinely invades individual privacy, acting as a defender of e-mail privacy, is preposterous. The Patriot Act gave the government enhanced “trap and trace” capabilities of our private e-mail. Granted, the inability to delete Gmail messages is worrisome, and Google may rethink this subpoena-friendly tilt toward Patriot Act-style invasiveness. But we need not ban Google’s offering; we can simply use another e-mail service — or ask Google to improve it.
Government ought not to ban novel services that awkwardly express inherent capabilities of the Internet; we can hammer out norms, and improve our lot without misguided legislation. Consumer acceptance or rejection of Gmail is not a public policy matter, but a private one. Indeed, Gmail promises more services to those least able to otherwise afford them.
It wouldn’t be surprising to find Google competitors (there are dozens of search engines available worldwide, according to the Search Engine Collossus) applauding the outrage over Gmail. But the Internet is about experimentation. Let’s see what folks are comfortable with; nobody can make us use Gmail.
Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. is vice president for policy and director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and co-editor of “Who Rules the Net? Internet Governance and Jurisdiction” (Cato Institute, 2003).