California State Senator Wants To Block Gmail?

from the say-what? dept

Okay, I have to admit that I don’t really understand the uproar over Google’s Gmail offering. The press has had a field day with all the negative attention that Gmail has been getting, and now a California state senator is even drafting legislation to ban Gmail. Why? Because “we think it’s an absolute invasion of privacy. It’s like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home.” Hmm. No, it’s not like that at all. It would be like that if a company gave me something of value in exchange for the ability to put a billboard in my house and I agreed to the deal – which seems like a perfectly reasonable transaction between two consenting parties. No one is being forced to use Gmail. If they don’t like the fact that Google will put ads in the email client, they’re free to not use it. In the meantime, there seem to be plenty of people who want to sign up for the service. Personally, I’ll admit that I was invited into the beta and have been messing around with it. I’m pretty concerned about my privacy, but don’t see anything wrong with what I’ve signed up for – and everyone who I’ve emailed to test the system out has asked me how they can get a Gmail account of their own.

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Comments on “California State Senator Wants To Block Gmail?”

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John Jorsett says:

Back to part-time legislature

The loons in the California legislature can’t balance the budget or stop driving business out of state, but they’ve got the time to solve the problems of mankind. This is the group that’s considering putting feng shui into the Building and Safety code, who want to give driver’s license to illegals, and who think school mascot names are worthy of state-wide rules. No wonder Schwarzenegger has started talking about going back to a part-time legislature.

someone247356 says:

Yep, you don't get it.

Yep, it sounds like you don’t get it. The biggest problem with GMail is that it erodes the “expectation of privacy” with respect to email.

Say that again, “expectation of privacy” while IANAL, I am aware of the legal ramifications of that term and you should be to. It’s all that stops the government from video taping you going to the bathroom without a warrant. Currently, email like phone calls and postal mail in letters have what’s known as an expectation of privacy. You expect that no one should legally be able to read/listen to your communications without a warrant, therefore the cops need a search warrant to listen in.

The difference between a “tap & trace” and a “wire tap” is because of that expectation of privacy. The courts have ruled that you don’t have an expectation of privacy in the phone numbers dialed, but you do in the conversation. Easy to get access to the numbers you’ve called, harder to get access to the actual conversation (well pre-Patriot Act anyway). Don’t need a warrant to listen in when you are talking on the park bench, do need a warrant to listen in when you are talking in your bedroom. In fact even when tech makes it possible to look inside your house from outside your house, the government may not do so. Recently the courts have ruled that the government’s use of IR imaging to look inside of a drug grower’s house without out a warrant was improper. If you’ve been following along you’ll already know why. The court ruled that people have an “expectation of privacy” while in their homes. Just because technology makes it possible for the government to snoop from across the street doesn’t diminish that expectation, therefore the cops should have gotten a warrant first.

So how does this tie back to the problem with GMail? Well, Google scans all of you incoming, and maybe outgoing, email. Their system reads your email and inserts content based ads into that email. If a third party is reading your email, the thinking goes, then you no longer have an “expectation of privacy” in regard to your email. Therefore it should be permissible for the government to read, archive, track all of your email, WITHOUT a warrant, just in case it might prove useful at some point.

That my friend is one of the biggest problems with GMail, and why the German government has already declared it illegal. It’s most likely why California want to make it illegal too.
Just my $0.02 (Canadian, before taxes)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yep, you don't get it.

Well, Google scans all of you incoming, and maybe outgoing, email. Their system reads your email and inserts content based ads into that email. If a third party is reading your email, the thinking goes, then you no longer have an “expectation of privacy” in regard to your email.

It’s not “reading” the mail, it’s making a mechanical transformation of the display based on the content. Or is my HTML formatter also “reading” my mail?

George says:

Re: Re: Yep, you don't get it--anonymous coward

The really big issue is that google will never actually let you perform a delete of your e-mail. They will hold a back up copy indefinitely. In addition, they have not ruled out the possibility of tying together your click-throughs and your identity for their own marketing purposes (and of course, though they will deny this) they could provide all of that data to other entities. G-mail sounds to me like the biggest potential invasion of privacy yet. And too many people seem to be focused more on the interface. Understandable in the usually poor interface world of Internet. People would do much better though to use a product such as that provided by CanyonBridge (–where the interface is even better, the cost (at least for the Beta version) is free, and there are no privacy issues. Granted at the moment, it only applies to Exchange users, but give them some time. I’m sure they’ll have something soon for the rest of us.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Yep, you don't get it--anonymous coward

Every hosted email account could claim the same exact thing – that they don’t really delete your email. Hell, when you delete your email on your own computer, it’s very unlikely that you actually delete it. They’re not saying that they’re keeping a copy “just in case” – they’re just pointing out the realities of what happens when you hit the delete key.

If this is a big worry for you, then don’t use Gmail. That’s your decision. Everyone else can make their own decision.

As for the whole “expectation of privacy” thing, how is Gmail scanning your email any different than your ISP scanning your email to determine if it’s spam? As far as I can tell it’s the exact same thing…

Finally, they don’t insert ads into the email at all. The ads appear on the page – so, in effect, the ads are withing the email client. Your email is left alone.

George says:

Re: No Subject Given

Obviously that errodes expectation of privacy, yet those same companies have absolutely no right to listen in on your phone conversations, or to record those conversations for furture use. Are we schizonphrenic on how we apply privacy law in this country? Yes. Private companies also do not have a right to read your snail mail either. One can only hope that enough people will get annoyed enough to reverse the laws on e-mail as well.

aNonMooseCowherd says:

Re: Privacy

Or is my HTML formatter also “reading” my mail?

Sure, but it runs on your own computer and doesn’t give the data to anyone else, so there are no privacy implications to that. If Google reads your email, you lose all control over it.

Every private company (with half a brain) has a policy that states it can read any of it’s employees email. This has withstood court test in nearly every state.

Sure, but that’s because it’s the company’s equipment you’re using. If you use your own computer to read mail you get through a personal ISP account, the company has no business reading that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Privacy

If you use Google’s computers to send/read/store mail then it’s perfectly acceptable that they view it provided they let that be known up front. They provide a free service in exchange for scanning your emails. What’s the big deal? No one is forcing you to use them.

And so what if they don’t delete the emails. My bank won’t delete my financial records when I close my account.

George says:

Re: Re: Re: Privacy--Anonymous Coward

No, but your bank records are protected by law, and access to those, just like wiretaps comes with a warrant. The problem is that the laws have yet to catch up with the Internet’s advances in collecting, holding and (un)scrupulously using/selling private data.

Let me give you an example from real life of how your private data can be used against you. A few years ago, a local man was charged with drunk driving. At his trial, the prosecution surprised him by asking “Isn’t it true that you buy a six pack a day from (insert local grocery chain name)? How did the prosecution get this data? They bought it from the supermarket that had one of those nice membership cards that save you money by tracking every purchase you make in their store. Did the fact that the gentleman bought a six pack a day mean that he was guilty of drunk driving? No, but it would sure sound damning to the jury. Now extrapolate from their to issues about custody for those undergoing a divorce and on and on.

It may not be too much to say that prohibitions against illegal search and seizure in the constitution are being completely subverted by the collection of data about every aspect of our lives that advances in technology such as G-mail are making possible.

By the way, the fact that you are raising an anonymous voice in this contest of opinion ought to say something about the value of privacy all on its own.

Milnesy says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Ok George, you make your point on the “privacy” and that Google is “violating” it… even though there’s no human intervention in the scan.

But it comes down to this, you don’t like it, don’t use it. Why should a company suffer when it wants to offer a product, when it is the user that accepts the EULA? If it’s stated in the EULA (of which, I’m sure it is), you know the “risks” and the potential “violation” of your privacy, and you accept it… then it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Also, if you don’t like, sure as hell don’t send or accept email from people who do use it.

Send it to someone at Gmail, and it reads YOUR words as well, whether or not you’ve agreed to anything. Sure, when you send a letter to someone, you’ve given up total control of the message, but there IS a reasonable expectation that they’ll be the ones to decide what to do with it, and not the service provider behind them…

You’re right: Don’t like it, don’t use it. I don’t like it, I won’t use it, and those who DO use it are going to have a hard time emailing me.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Also, if you don’t like, sure as hell don’t send or accept email from people who do use it.

Send it to someone at Gmail, and it reads YOUR words as well, whether or not you’ve agreed to anything. Sure, when you send a letter to someone, you’ve given up total control of the message, but there IS a reasonable expectation that they’ll be the ones to decide what to do with it, and not the service provider behind them…

You’re right: Don’t like it, don’t use it. I don’t like it, I won’t use it, and those who DO use it are going to have a hard time emailing me.

Let me get this straight… because a computer scans the email of someone else, you won’t accept or send emails to that person.

Do you not send or receive emails to/from anyone who uses an anti-spam filter… because that’s the exact same thing? Do you not send or receive emails to/from anyone who stores those emails on a server somewhere?

George says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

I might add that Germany has already declared gmail to be verboten ( because of privacy concerns.

One of my larger concerns about the little p is that if this flies for Google, a person who votes with their feet will be hard pressed to find a company that offers e-mail without such invasions of privacy, just as it is now difficult to find a grocery store that doesn’t track your every purchase.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

It’s actually quite easy to find a grocery store that doesn’t track your every purchase. You can simply choose not to use the cards they give out. Or, I’ve discovered that most grocery stores will hand you a card without having you fill out a form each time you go. Do that, pay in cash, and no one knows who you are or what you’ve bought.

It’s all up to you.

No one is forcing you to do anything. It’s just a trade off, and many people find it worthwhile.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Let me help you here, since you seem to not understand my point:

I send mail to someone at Gmail, it reads the content of what I’m sending to them, and it has a way of tieing info in that email to my address. I’ve signed no agreement with them that they can scan my emails for “directed advertised content” and yet it happens. The system almost certainly will build a database corellation between my email address and whatever tokenized words it finds in that email, and that database corellation is stored somewhere.

This is a bit more than spam filtering, which for the most part just makes a binary judgement between spam and non-spam. If tokens are saved, they’re just indicating spamness or nonspamness. It’s not a hugely telling factor. If a spam filter does more (phrase parsing like CRM does), I DO think its not a terribly good idea to let someone else other than yourself do or retain the database for that.

Lets pick a personal email. A very personal email. Say I send an email to a friend at Gmail telling them that I’ve tested positive for AIDS, but asking them for the time being to keep it quiet. The Gmail database, automatically, without user intervention, builds a corellation between my email address, the word AIDS, etc. Sure, this db correlation is not likely ever to be used by a targeting advertiser (except extraordinarily stupid ones, wait… I guess never say never), but its there, on their server, ready for mining for the first bad subpoena, marketing partner sharing, or just arbitrary privacy policy change at indeterminate point in the future when as yet unknown owners of Google’s assets decide to improve revenue. Sure, you might say it would be a bit dumb to send that type of message over email in the first place, but it happens.

As for remote storage, that can and does get to be problems all the time, but I think the defining problem with Gmail is that its summarizing the information, and processing it, and making it digestable to targeting. Sure, its immediate uses are fairly benign in the big picture, but its abuse is what’s disturbing. Its a boundry crossed.

As for why I’d block email’s FROM it: If I won’t/can’t send to, I don’t allow back. Its partially reciprocity and partially just making sure there is no imbalanced expectations of communication: If someone sends me a Gmail and I quietly accept it, but since the indexing information bothers me, I don’t reply, it gives the appearance that I’m just ignoring the message. Having my MTA reject the email so it bounces at least lets them know they’re going to have to try a different means of communication if they want get a hold of me.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Aha. Very interesting. However, I’ve seen no indication that Gmail is tying content to specific email addresses. Does anyone know whether or not this is the case? This would seem to go against everything Google claims to be doing, and I haven’t seen the point raised elsewhere. If it is true, however, you may have a point.

However, your other points apply equally to any mail stored on a server anywhere.

Do you accept/send email from/to people using Yahoo or Hotmail email accounts?

George says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Privacy--Anonymous Coward


Evidently you didn’t read the link I mentioned earlier:,1,6221287.story?coll=la-utilities-technology.

Judging from your response to Anonymous Coward, you seem to have a fundamental mis-understanding of how current e-mail offerings differ from what Google wants to do. No one is currently scanning e-mail to mine data for advertising or like purposes. Scanning is currently geared towards protecting the consumer, not probing for information about a customer.

Here is the portion of the above link that bears upon this whole point:

Google records the numerical Internet addresses of the computers that request each of the Web searches the company performs. But it hasn’t had names or other identifying information to link those addresses to specific people and learn who, for example, is searching for “Janet Jackson halftime show.”

Once users register for Gmail, Google would be able to make that connection, if it chose to, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum in San Diego. And if Google ever compared the two sets of data, she said, “there are some people who would be chilled and embarrassed.”

Page wouldn’t say whether Google planned to link Gmail users to their Web search queries.

“It might be really useful for us to know that information” to make search results better, he said. “I’d hate to rule anything like that out.”

Page, by the way, is “Google’s co-founder and president of products”.

So while Google may not yet have linked the two, they certainly won’t rule it out for the future, just as though there current privacy policy may exclude certain things, what is there to stop them from changing their privacy policy in the future? Plenty of companies have, whenever they felt like a buck was worth betraying their customers. This is why this country needs the stiffer kinds of privacy laws that Germany and other European countries have.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Privacy--Anonymous Coward


You seem to have jumped to conclusions… The article DOES NOT say that they’ll attach *incoming* email addresses to content – which was the AC’s worry.

Linking my email address to a search could be useful, as long as it’s clear that they’re doing so and I have the option of opting out. I’m not sure what the privacy violation is if I willingly give up the info.

George says:

Re: Re: Re:9 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

My point is that it is all of the same piece. Just because they aren’t doing either of those two things today (linking customer names to searches, or grabbing e-mail addresses out of incoming e-mails) does not mean that such things are or will not be contemplated in the future. You read Larry Pages statement “It might be really useful for us to know that information” to make search results better, he said. “I’d hate to rule anything like that out.”

The point is, a company that exists to make money will never rule anything out that makes money. That is why consumer protection groups exist in the first place.

All of your arguments center around choice, but the cold hard facts are that most people are unaware of or feel powerless about these kinds of issues.

How many people really read the EULAs when they install a piece of software for instance?

How many people outside the IT industry have a clue about any of these things?

Where does choice go in a state of ignorance? And don’t those who know the dangers have a responsibility to protect those that don’t?

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:10 Privacy--Anonymous Coward


There’s a simple way around this: go ahead and create the perfect email system the way you want it, and then advertise the hell out of it, explaining why it’s better than Google’s.

Then, let the market decide.

In the meantime, you keep talking about “protecting” people who don’t seem to want your protection.

George says:

Re: Re: Re:11 Privacy--Anonymous Coward


there is another very simple solution to all of this: pass a federal law like that in Germany forbidding invasion of privacy.

Just like we have a FCC and a Food and Drug Administration, consumers could benefit from a Privacy advocacy arm to the federal gov’t.

Or maybe, we should do away with the two aforementioned federal institutions, and go back to the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, since obviously, people could choose to buy products that weren’t corrupted in those days. It was all simply a choice, and what right or responsibility do we have to protect the ignorant, right?

Psydr says:

Re: Re: Re:11 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

I would have to agree with George on this one. I think it is pretty clear most people would not understand a single one of these passages or the intentions of Google’s Gmail. And I would hope we all agree these folks DO need to be protected from their own ignorance. 99% of the folks who sign up for Gmail will not understand the rights they’re giving up.
And while Google may currently not be cross-referencing databases, just the potential scares the crap out of me. By Google’s intention to not rule out such an event, I would have to assume they may well be considering it.

George says:

Re: Re: Re:12 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Thanks Psydr. It would be nice not to have to worry about privacy issues, just like I don’t usually worry about food issues. And when something like mad cow does come along, it’s nice to know that there are folks whose job it is to resolve it. And despite Mike’s angry comeback, I do think that in certain cases, privacy issues can be just as devastating as contracting mad cow.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:13 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Please don’t twist around what I said. Certain privacy issues may be quite devastating. If you read Techdirt on a regular basis, you’d know that I support that very strongly. However, I’m talking about this specific case where (a) Google is quite open about what they’re doing and (b) there’s a clear choice that you can make.

Using email is inherantly opening yourself up to privacy violations. Yet, for most people, it’s a fair tradeoff.

Comparing Gmail to mad cow disease is beyond ridiculous.

George says:

Re: Re: Re:14 Privacy--Anonymous Coward


If I offended you in anyway, I apologize. Perhaps we are talking at cross purposes. You seem to be defending Google on a specific case basis, I’m talking about privacy issues in general, and only tangentally as they apply to Google. Yet, to quote Psydr, “And while Google may currently not be cross-referencing databases, just the potential scares the crap out of me.” That’s the point I’m trying to make, not specifically what Google is doing today, but the fact that we have no laws to prevent Google (or anyone else) from applying technology in ways that are increasingly intrusive into our private affairs. And when I read statements like the one Larry Page made, alarm bells go off. But, I’m tired of this thread. Maybe we can just agree to disagree.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Privacy--Anonymous Coward

Hmm. So who do you send/receive email to/from? How do you guarantee that they won’t misuse your email.

If you sent email to me, it would end up on my desktop, where you have absolutely no control over it. That’s true with anyone you email.

Or do you not use email at all?

You do realize that if you leave your house, someone may see you – which you may interpret as a violation of your privacy – but most people see it as an acceptable tradeoff for getting out of their house and having a life. Same thing with email. When you send out an email you are obviously giving up some element of privacy in sharing what you’ve written with someone else.

It’s all about tradeoffs, and you’re welcome to not use email and to stay locked away in your house if you’d like, but that doesn’t mean you should stop everyone else from doing what they want.

Rick Colosimo (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Expectation of "Privacy" vs. "privacy"

George and someone247356 are talking about two different things. Posters have noted that George is talking about little-p privacy, the kind that just has to do with keeping more of your personal information out of other people’s hands. As Mike (and others) noted, this concern is less important, particularly on the internet, because the consumer has a vast amount of power to switch providers, hide identities, or simply create a competitive offering. You don’t like Gmail’s implications? Set up a competing service. If you don’t think that you will succeed because other people don’t value your issue as much as you do… well, that’s democracy in action. The best example of this sort of response is the segment of Christians who read Christian books, listen to Christian music, watch Christian TV, and view Christian websites. They value their different choices enough to actually support businesses that provide those choices.

Now, back to someone247356’s point, which is far more interesting from a legal point of view. His point, restated, is that if you allow Google to read (whether by software or wetware) your email, you may signal to the government that you have a reduced expectation of privacy in those emails and they are therefore going to be less protected by the 4th Amendment than you might otherwise expect for emails today. I hope that someone who is more up-to-date on email & search and seizure can point to recent cases setting forth the law on this topic, but let me point towards possible solutions.

First, the government (state or federal) could pass a law extending equivalent protection to Gmail emails. While this would mostly work, the federal level trumps the state, so if the ATF raids my machine-gun armory because of reading emails that California says are protected, I’m SOL. (And before anyone complains that the Gov’t won’t pass such laws, remember that we ALL elect those people — how many of us didn’t vote across the country?)

Second, upon court challenge (most likely from a criminal prosecution), the Supreme Court could find that you do indeed have an expectation of privacy in emails under a theory analogous to the common carrier approach that exempts those carriers for liability for your emails. Of course, there are other theories as well.

Third, you could contract (cf. my discussion re: George, above) with Google to keep your emails private from third parties. The analogy here is garbage. Whereas virtually all courts have said that you have no expectation of privacy in things you dispose of, there are cases that state that you do have an expectation of privacy in your garbage if you have a certain type of service that stores/safeguards your garbage. So, the market solution comes to the rescue once again, IF it’s important enough to you to either pay for the privilege or vote with your feet and use a provider whose policies you prefer.


George says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Expectation of


thanks for pointing out the differences between my point, and that of someone247356. I would say though that whether or not one point is more interesting legally than the other might depend on whether or not you are the person in the defendant chair having your private data used against you in a court case.

As to the issue of voting with your feet, of course I will. The reason that I bother to express an opinion at all is because privacy is still not on the radar screen for way too many people. Maybe it’s just one of those “It won’t happen to me” kind of things. There is an interesting article though in the LA Times that highlights some concerns. (,1,6221287.story?coll=la-utilities-technology) I don’t think that Goolge execs are evil, just out to make a buck, regardless of how that affects your or my privacy. And the ramifications for all of us can be privacy with a little p or the larger Orwellian scenarios you find more interesting.

Lawrence Lapadat says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Expectation of "Privacy" vs. "privacy"

A company from N J is blocking an email from me at above adress ,on Vancouver
Island British Columbia Canada to my sister ,at in Terrace
British Columbia. What do you natzy Americans think you are doing. Just because
Bush Blew the twin towers to aid a Zionist plot to take over the midle East, you
think you own the world? The Company blocking my gmail is called Data pipe
domain adress phone# 1-201-792-1918 dec7 00;50 the block began, it is now 2;58 pst and
I am getting pissed off with their abuse of their power. It is posswible they are
involved with who also was blocking my internet
access. This is the company I have reported as the marketers of drug rape porn
video bussiness with the FDA, If it is CIA then we know they are aiding perverts

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