How Google Products Go from Creepy to Cool

By Elinor Mills, CNET News


On April 1, 2004, Google announced its new and capacious Gmail service and said it would serve up contextual ads, a move so radical that people initially thought it was an April Fool's joke. It wasn't.

At the time, more than 30 civil liberties groups urged Google to suspend Gmail, arguing that targeting people with ads in their e-mail was setting a dangerous precedent and letting the "proverbial genie out of the bottle" for privacy abuse. California Sen. Liz Figueroa drafted a bill aimed at restricting this use of Gmail (later dropped), privacy groups asked the California Attorney General to investigate whether Google was violating wiretapping laws, and one Google critic created the "Gmail is too creepy" site.

Fast-forward eight years -- 425 million Gmail people are using the service, and contextual ads are regularly ignored in e-mails on Yahoo and other free e-mail services. It's not that people are now apathetic about, for example, seeing a Viagra ad when they are asking someone for a date. It's that people do not seem to feel threatened by the notion that Google's all-seeing computers are eyeballing the messages and serving up ads. We see the ads everyday in our e-mails, next to our Web searches, and on the most popular sites -- they have become part of the accepted Internet landscape.


Google's moral compass is steered to a large degree by its mantra of "don't be evil." "They believe their intentions are pure and therefore privacy problems are not a problem because they don't intend to harm people," said Chris Hoofnagle, director of Information Privacy Programs at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. But that kind of thinking can be dangerous because it doesn't factor in things like hackers who can steal data and governments who can force well-intentioned companies to hand over user information or comply with wiretap orders, or even economic realities that might compel a change in business strategy.