U.K. privacy group wary of Google's Web mail

A citizens' group lodges a complaint with U.K. authorities, saying Gmail may violate Europe's privacy laws.

A new Google e-mail service that stores messages where users cannot delete them may violate Europe's privacy laws, a citizens' group said Monday after lodging a complaint with U.K. authorities.

The world's most popular Internet search engine said last week it would offer a free e-mail service, called "Gmail," with one gigabyte of free storage capacity--more than 100 times that offered by established rivals Yahoo Mail and Microsoft's MSN Hotmail.

But the breakthrough comes at the price of less privacy.

"Residual copies of e-mail may remain on our systems, even after you have deleted them from your mailbox or after the termination of your account," Google's Gmail says in its privacy and terms of use sections.

Google will also scan users' e-mails in order to paste appropriate advertising into messages. It may also link together "cookies," which contain personal information, from both e-mail and Web use records.

"This is not just 'buyer beware.' Consumers should be aware that there's a vast violation of European law occurring here," said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a citizens' group with offices in Britain and the United States. Europe's privacy protection laws are much stricter than those in the United States, where Google is based. European consumers, for example, have the right to retain control over their communications.

"If a person deletes an e-mail, he should be confident that e-mail is actually deleted," said Maurice Westerling, co-founder of Bits of Freedom, another privacy interest group, based in the Netherlands.

"Besides, Google cannot just open e-mails. Communication in Europe has a very high degree of protection," Westerling added.

The robot read my mail
Google said it would not assign people to scan the content of e-mails, but would automate the task with computers.

"No humans read your e-mail to target the ads," it said on its Web site.

The office of the British Information Commissioner Officer Richard Thomas had no immediate comment on the complaint, filed by Privacy International early on Monday to request an investigation of the new service.

Google, which also faced criticism from U.S.-based privacy groups, could not immediately comment on whether it would adjust the terms of use.

The company has often received high marks from consumer groups for putting users ahead of commercial interests, for instance by limiting advertising and blocking pop-up windows.

Privacy groups said they were also concerned about Google's ability to link a user's personal details, supplied in the Gmail registration process, to Web-surfing behavior through the use of a single cookie for its search and mail services.

"This linkage provides the most comprehensive understanding to date of a person's life," said Davies, adding governments would be tempted to access that information.

Privacy advocates gave differing views on whether European consumers would be able to waive their rights in order to use the Google service.

"If the consumer is aware of the terms of service, that counts as a private agreement between the two parties. We would not consider it unsolicited communications," said Steve Linford, founder of antispam group Spamhaus Project.

Government-backed privacy agencies in Sweden and Germany, however, have blocked commercial services because personal information required in order to sign up would be stored on U.S.-based computers.

"These providers can't just do as they please and hide behind a contract," Privacy International's Davies said.

Gmail's rival services Yahoo Mail and MSN Hotmail, with tens of millions of users worldwide, also have far-reaching user terms, allowing the companies to make use of information put on their Web sites by consumers.

Yahoo explicitly says it will delete any e-mails or other information after an account is closed.

Story Copyright  © 2004 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.

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