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