GMail still dogged by privacy issues

Google has responded to accusations that its Gmail e-mail service may violate users' privacy by expressing a willingness to be...

Google has responded to accusations that its Gmail e-mail service may violate users' privacy by expressing a willingness to be flexible about how it offers the service.

Gmail, announced on 1 April, will be a free, web-based e-mail service, similar to Microsoft's MSN Hotmail and Yahoo's Yahoo Mail, although its 1Gbyte of storage is much more than these other popular free services offer.

However, Google wants to scan e-mail and add advertisements that it thinks are relevant to the messages. The Gmail privacy policy also warns that messages, even if "deleted" by a user, may still be stored in the system, long after users have closed their account - something that some privacy campaigners believe may conflict with data protection and privacy laws on both sides of the Atlantic.

Since the Gmail announcement, Spymac Network has launched a free online e-mail service that matches the 1Gbyte of storage offered by Google, but has said it will not do keyword searching and will not tie ads to 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.

Last week, Privacy International filed a formal complaint with the U.'s information commissioner office (ICO) requesting that action be taken against Gmail. California 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.

"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," a Google spokesman said.

The technology that presents users with relevant Gmail ads 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 added.

"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 said that as long as Google makes the conditions of its service clear to people when they sign up, the proposed service should not violate UK data protection laws. "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 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."

However, Privacy International's Davies was not so happy with ICO's response.

"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 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 does not 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 22 April 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 data privacy agencies in Germany, the Netherlands and France could not be reached for comment.

Representatives from the European Commission 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. 

Sandler pointed to the "opt-in" directive that was added to the statute books of the EU 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.

"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.

Laura Rohde writes for IDG News Service

Read more on E-commerce technology