First, i can’t help but laugh every time i hear the name G-Mail. It’s really the g dash that gets me. I spent years working on a site called the V-Spot. It was explicitly supposed to be directed down there. Well, G- to me automatically signifies the G-Spot. So every time i login, i giggle.
People truly have their panties in a bunch over G-Mail and this *kills* me. My favorite, as noted by master Heer, is that a California Senator is drafting legislation to stop Google. My roommate and i, who met when we were running a workshop on privacy, had a grand ole conversation about G-Mail today. Here’s where i stand.
On a technical level, Google is not doing anything more than any other free-mail site. They are searching through your email for keywords using automated robots only; spam filters on Hotmail and Yahoo do the same thing. The difference is what they do with that information. While spam filters just move your messages to a different directory, Google calculates a metric in which to automatically present you with ads. (For those who haven’t seen the ads, unlike banner ads, they’re uber small and so not invasive; in fact, i couldn’t find them at first.) By default, the ads are given to you and assuming you ignore them, the client knows nothing about you. If you click, it’s your prerogative and i still haven’t figured out what all ends up being sent. But Master Heer is correct – the cookies shit that Hotmail/Yahoo leave behind are *far* more invasive and you can’t get out of them simply by not clicking.
So, on a technical level, i don’t think that poorly of G-Mail. Then, there is the social level. Once again, Google has made me smack my hand to my forehead and scream up, praying to the goddesses to send them a few socially-minded people.
The hysteria should be a first good clue. It doesn’t matter that it’s less technologically invasive – it’s a fucking sociological terror. It makes you *FEEL* invaded, used, vulnerable. At least with banner ads, you can’t make any connections between the ad and your messages. You don’t feel icky. Of course, everyone felt icky when Amazon.com started announcing “Hello, danah” on their front doorstep. There’s a slight similarity here… Both Amazon and Google are making the fact that they have your data transparent to you, reminding you that you’re being watched. Both are using your data to sell you something. The difference is that you go to Amazon to shop… you go to Google to personally communicate. And you don’t want to feel invaded in that process. No one wants the feeling of Big Brother sitting around. And it doesn’t matter if that’s not true. If people _feel_ that way, it sucks. This is the point of a Panopticon. (If you don’t get this, read Bentham’s “The Panopticon Writings”… or, since that’s out of print, try “Discipline and Punish” by Foucault – a must read.)
A friend of mine at the EFF gave me a perfect example of why this makes people feel gross. Imagine that you’re talking about a sensitive topic with a loved one… Imagine that you’re talking about abortion or adoption. Can you imagine the ads that would come up and how you would feel? ::cringe::
My frustration is that people are talking about G-Mail as a privacy issue. This word is super super loaded (right Paul?). This isn’t a privacy issue. This is a vulnerability issue. This is an issue of how people _feel_ not what is actually going on and how it differs from other services. The fact that this feels more invasive is all that matters. If Google thinks that they can educate users, they’re probably in for a big surprise.
Note: That said, i truly believe that lots of people will sign up for G-Mail anyhow. Google appears far more trustworthy than Yahoo or MS. 1 Gig is a super incentive. And i’d bet that everyone screaming foul has their own domain, doesn’t use freemail and doesn’t get that most of the world will give up all of their data for the chance of winning a Porsche. That doesn’t make it right… and i truly hope that Google considers what it’s doing to its brand by this move. While it won’t impact the sign-up rates, i believe that the grossness will affect later inventions and diminish the “do no evil” tagline at Google.