Privacy issues continue to dog Google's Gmail

Since announcing Gmail two weeks ago, Google has been forced to defend the planned Web-based e-mail service against accusations that it may violate users' privacy. In the face of the attacks, especially vociferous in Europe, which has strict privacy regulations, Google has begun to express willingness to be flexible about how it offers the service.

"This is one of the hottest issues we've ever dealt with in terms of Internet issues," said Simon Davies, the director of the privacy advocate group, Privacy International.

Gmail, announced April 1, is planned as a free, Web-based e-mail service, similar to Microsoft's MSN Hotmail and Yahoo's Yahoo Mail, though its 1G byte of storage is much more than these other popular free services offer. But Google is planning to scan e-mail and add advertisements that it thinks are relevant to the messages. Additionally, the Gmail privacy policy warns that messages, even if "deleted" by a user, may still be stored in the system, even long after users have closed their account -- something that some privacy campaigners believe may be in conflict with U.S. and European data protection and privacy laws.

Since the Gmail announcement, Spymac Network has launched a free online e-mail service that matches the 1G byte of storage that Google is offering, but has pointedly said it will not do key-word searching and will not tie advertisements to the service.

Last week, Privacy International filed a formal complaint with the U.K.'s information commissioner office (ICO) requesting that action be taken against Gmail. Additionally, California state Democratic senator Liz Figueroa said the privacy issues were leading her to consider proposing legislation to stop Google from launching its Gmail service in its present form.

In the face of such opposition, Google has given signs that it may be rethinking how the Gmail service is structured. The service would require all users to participate in the ad service -- that is, users would have to accept the display of ads and the scanning of their e-mail messages -- but that could change, as could many other things, since Gmail is in early testing phase, a Google spokesman said Wednesday.

"Google has the highest regard for the privacy of our users' information. We have taken great care to architect Gmail to protect user privacy and to deliver an innovative and useful service. While we're still in a limited test of Gmail, we welcome and appreciate feedback on how we can improve the offering for our users," he said via e-mail.

The technology that presents users with relevant Gmail advertisements operates in the same way as all popular Web mail features that process e-mail content to provide a user benefit, such as spam filtering or virus detection, he said.

"We are confident that Gmail is fully compliant with data protection laws worldwide. Google actively solicits user feedback on our privacy policies. If they can be made clearer or otherwise improved, we want to hear about it. We look forward to a detailed dialogue with data protection authorities across Europe to ensure their concerns are heard and resolved," he said.

A spokeswoman for the ICO on Wednesday said that as long as Google makes the conditions of its service transparent to people when they sign up, the proposed service should not violate U.K. data protection laws. "As long as Google makes it clear that it is monitoring e-mail usage and passing that information on for marketing purposes, there shouldn't be a problem. But I want to make it clear that Google has not even launched the service yet, and has agreed to work with us to make sure that its notification process is very clear," she said.

The ICO spokeswoman added that representatives from Google working with the ICO had been surprised by the reaction to its proposed e-mail service. "I don't think they thought this was going to be a problem," she said.

Not only has the data privacy issue cropped up as a potential problem for Gmail, it appears to be a problem that won't easily go away.

"I'm a bit angry at the ICO because they've been putting around the idea that the Gmail service as planned is okay, simply if you make it clear that they are going to scan and then permanently store your information: That is not the point. This is about having rights over your own e-mail and Google is going to have to give you control over your own e-mail. This is virgin territory," Privacy International's Davies said.

Privacy International is concerned that Google is treating a serious privacy issue purely as a public relations issue and has vowed to press the matter further if the ICO doesn't pledge to gain a series of guarantees and protections from Google for potential users of Gmail.

"We will be filing simultaneous complaints with the data privacy regulations of every other European nation on April 22 should we not receive a satisfactory response from the IOC," Davies said. "Germany, for example, has much stricter policies regarding privacy and they wouldn't blink at taking severe action. Sweden, as well, has shown a willingness to addressed similar issues."

Jeanna Thorslund, senior information officer of Sweden's Data Inspection Board, said that though the board has not received any complaints about Gmail, it was aware of the planned e-mail service and would continue to monitor the situation. Representatives from the data privacy agencies in Germany, the Netherlands and France could do immediately be reached for comment.

In a similar fashion, representatives from the European Commission -- the European Union's (E.U.'s) executive body -- said that they were also aware of the proposed Gmail service and were ready to look into potential legal conflicts should the need arise.

"We are not in an active stance of waiting for complaints about Gmail and we are not at the moment investigating anything specific but we will keep an eye on the situation," said Commission spokesman for enterprise and information society issues Peter Sandler, on Thursday.

As an example of a potential problem with Gmail, Sandler pointed to the "opt-in" directive that was added to the statute books of the E.U. member states last October. The measure puts the onus on companies to obtain permission from individual users to send them unsolicited commercial e-mail. Additionally, theoretical issues about confidentiality may also arise with Gmail, he said.

"The EC has a framework in place that requires confidentiality. There is an obligation of member states to make sure that the confidentiality of messages are insured. So that could have implications for companies that are scanning and tracking information," Sandler said.

(Juan Carlos Perez in Miami contributed to this report)

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Laura Rohde

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill


I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?