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Friday, April 2, 2004

Gmail Privacy

One thing about the whole Gmail privacy debate – “Gmail gives me the creeps”, and “Do you really want Google snooping so close to home?”, and “Google should go back to the drawing board and correct a big mistake, before it’s too late”, as CNETs executive editor puts it – is especially annoying. It’s the fact that all free mail providers (right, the ones that have been around for years) also store, read, extract, convert, and in general digitally handle your mails. That’s right, as soon as you open up Microsoft’s Hotmail, Bill Gates himself could spy into your most private emails.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft has better things to do than to read your mails. But you should know that at any time, Microsoft could if they see commercial value in it. Aside from the misconception that someone is actually commercially interested in your private communication, the power of the masses is the best thing to protect you from someone actually going through individual emails. You have a hard time keeping up mailing family and friends, now imagine how much work it is to do this for million of people. All you can do with this information is extract general idea. E.g. Yahoo! does so by publishing “most emailed news story” or “most emailed photo” top lists. The mass has no privacy rights as no individual can be identified.

So what is different this time? Google said they want to display contextual ads. This means that when you invite your friend to a glass of wine on sunday, you might see advertisement for wine somewhere. And if you talk about beer, magically, the advertisement includes beer. Or coke. Or any other product on this planet sold by a company which is registered for using AdWords (I, too, have an AdWords account and might advertise my website in your Gmail account, as soon as you talk about something relevant to my site).

Does Google invade your privacy? No, it does not. First of all, for someone to invade something, there must be mutual disagreement of this invasion taking place. If you sign up with Google Inc’s Gmail, you fully agree you give up your privacy. You did so when you choose Hotmail, Yahoo, or any other free webmailer. This is not to say anybody can sell your privacy to third parties. And Google does not; all an advertiser will see is that his “wine” or “beer” or “coke” product campaign got N hits. The advertiser will neither know what is in your email, nor do they have any interest in that information. It’s simply not commercial.

Now would you be creeped out too by Gmail? Think about it. Ads are all around you in free email services. But now one thing, only one thing changed; those ads will become relevant. This means they change from being noise, to being something that might actually help you. I often find the AdSense ads I display on my sites add to the overall information, instead of subtracting from it, or annoying my visitors. And if all fails, you still have the chance to ignore the ads presented to you. No one is forcing you to click on them.

Gmail is bigger, better, bigger. Our privacy, however, stayed just the same – we give it up like we always did. The one thing that really changed this time is that it’s too good to be true. I don’t think most writers like something to be too good to be true.

Gmail Screenshot

The first public Gmail screenshot I could find on the Web.
On it, you can see the folders on the left side, the message in the middle, and ads on the right hand. The ads are context relevant as they take on the topic of taxes as discussed in the emails.
It seems to me one can add different labels to each email, a sort of meta-keyword for future look-up. As you’d expect from Google Inc, a search box is placed prominently on top of Gmail, and the screen is relatively uncluttered.

Update: I found out about a new screenshot (thanks to Brendan Loy). It’s from unimpressed user Erik C. Thauvin. However, it’s also fake, according to Kevin Fox.
Brendan (who counts himself to the “unbelievers camp”) is also not convinced of the first screen either and comments:

“Now you show us a screenshot on Google’s servers that is clearly fake – the writing in those “tax"-related e-mails is so sterile, they obviously aren’t a real correspondence between a father and daughter. At best it’s a fake screenshot for marketing purposes; at worst it’s a fake screenshot for hoax purposes.”
– Brendan Loy, April 2nd 2004

Kevin Fox (who’s working as user interface designer at Googleplex) adds:

Gmail is real (...)

It’s “I came to work for Google and got handed a dream assignment to design the UI for a product that’s going to change the world” real, and now I’m thrilled that my best kept secret was kept so well that even my close friends took the “it’s gotta be a joke” path yesterday.”
– Kevin Fox, Gmail is real (, April 1st/ 2nd 2004

(On a completely unrelated note, Kevin also points us to this UserFriendly Google cartoon.)

Search Frustrations

Lee Watters asked people outside the expert researchers/ search business group how they feel about search.
Two things I found interesting. First, some people don’t have a clue which results are paid for by companies, and which just happen to rank best according to the engine’s algorithm. Second, that people found it annoying when a high page count is returned, somehow feeling they would have to go through all of the result pages.
On the question “What frustrates you most about Internet search?”, one replied:

“That a search comes back with hundreds of thousands and sometimes million+ results. Who has time to look through that many? I feel sorry for the poor sods at the end – do they ever get any hits?”
– Via Lee Watters, Search in the Real World (iMedia), April 01, 2004


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