April 1, 2004 -- On April Fools Day, Google, the Internet search engine heavyweight, soft-launched its new, free email service called Gmail. Beta testers of the new service benefit from 1 gigabyte of storage space and its developers tout better-search functions than other free email accounts such as Yahoo, MSN, and Hotmail. However, Gmail has raised privacy concerns because users cannot opt out of having incoming emails scanned for keywords that Google then uses for content-targeted advertising. In addition, Google's Terms of Service admits that Gmail messages may remain on its system for an indefinite period -- even after an account has been deleted.
April 6, 2004 -- Many privacy and civil liberties groups worldwide were alarmed by Gmail's privacy implications and the fact that no other email service provider has ever reviewed incoming email content for targeted ads. On this day, 31 privacy and civil liberties groups signed on to an open letter asking Google co-founders to suspend the service until privacy concerns were adequately addressed. The letter, co-authored by the World Privacy Forum and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, notes that scanning confidential email messages without the sender's consent and then appending ad content violates the trust of email service users, in particular those non-Gmail users who send messages to Gmail subscribers. In addition scanning creates lower expectations of privacy in the email medium and thereby establishes a potentially dangerous precedent.
The open letter can be read in its entirety at:
April 19, 2004 - The UK-based Privacy International filed a complaint asking the privacy and data protection commissioners of many of the EU countries to investigate the serious privacy problems that Google's Gmail service poses. The complaint was sent to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Austria, Australia and Canada along with the European Commission and the EU Commissioners' internal Article 29 Data Protection Working Group.
The complaint is available at: www.privacyinternational.org/issues/internet/gmail-complaint.pdf
April 20, 2004 -- California State Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) introduced legislation (SB 1822) that would require email providers to get consent from both parties of an email exchange before the content can be reviewed or used for purposes like ad placement.
May 3, 2004 -- SB 1822 is amended so that consent is no longer a feature of the bill. The bill now focuses on allowing email to be scanned for contemporaneous posting of content-based ads. The PRC continues to work with the author on language for the bill though disappointed that the original intention of the bill has been removed.
The bill can be viewed online at:
May 3, 2004 -- The Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.epic.org) along with the World Privacy Forum (www.worldprivacyforum.org) and the PRC sent a letter to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer asking that it investigate Google's Gmail service for possible violations of state eavesdropping and wiretapping laws. The letter points out that California law requires all-party consent and that those who send email to the Gmail.com domain have not given express permission for the content of their correspondence to be reviewed for keywords and subsequent ad placement. If Google is found to be in violation of California's Penal Code 631, Gmail users could face possible civil and criminal penalties, the letter states.
The letter to the California Attorney General is available at:
A separate letter to Google Co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, notifying them of Google and Gmail users' possible liability, is available at: www.privacyrights.org/ar/Gmail-BrinLetter.pdf
June 4, 2004 -- California Attorney General Bill Lockyer replies to the letter sent to his office regarding concerns of possible wiretap violations. The reply notes that "the potential exposure of Gmail users to liability for violation of Penal Code section 631 is of particular concern, as are the rights of those who are not subscribers to Gmail but who send e-mail to those who are." The letter continues, "Although my office does not have sufficient information to determine whether Gmail violates any California law, we will continue to monitor the issue."
The letter is available at: