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Gmail and its discontents

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh says the reaction to Google's new e-mail services highlights a tactical divide within the ranks of Internet activists on how best to respond.

The sharp reaction to Google's announcement of the Gmail service earlier this month underscored a deep divide in the tactics and strategies employed by Internet privacy activists.

Privacy groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., and London-based Privacy International denounced Gmail as an intrusion that must not be permitted to exist.

The objections lodged against Gmail are telling, because they illuminate two different views about how to respond to new technologies.
EPIC and about 30 others, including Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, wrote a letter to the company, urging Google to suspend the service, and Privacy International fired off complaints with dozens of governments in an attempt to shut down the free e-mail service, which is still being beta tested. (Gmail offers 1GB of storage in exchange for displaying automated advertisements based on the text of an e-mail message. Critics are upset about Gmail, because it is designed to collect a person's entire e-mail history without, they believe, sufficient legal safeguards.)

This approach differs from traditional privacy activism, which alerts people to a product's potential dangers and lets them make up their own mind.

The objections lodged against Gmail are telling, because they illuminate two different views about how to respond to new technologies. The protechnology view says customers of a company should be allowed to make up their own mind and that government regulation should be a last resort. Privacy fundamentalists, on the other hand, insist that new services they believe to be harmful should be banned, even if consumers are clamoring for them.

"Whether it's on this issue or a host of other issues, the de facto position of many privacy groups--EPIC being the lead--is antitechnology," said Rob Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute. "It's to shut new IT technologies down before we use them."

Atkinson, by the way, is no Newt Gingrich-voting Reaganaut. His institute is part of the Democratic Leadership Council, once chaired by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1991.

Banning technologies
It's not just activist groups. The same mind-set has infected some politicians, too.

In February, California state senator Debra Bowen, a Democrat, introduced a bill to regulate radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. It says that before they can be used for information collection, a business "shall obtain written consent."

Even if you agree with Bowen's approach, it seems chronologically questionable. In a world where we can open a bank account over the Internet, why require a signature on a piece of paper? Bowen's legislation only makes sense if her intent is to make the technology so unwieldy that few people will use it.

EPIC and its allies went even further, saying in a November 2003 position statement that some uses of RFID tags "should be flatly prohibited."

Figueroa's bill is so broad, it would ban far more than just Gmail.
Does that include implanting consenting nightclub patrons with miniscule microchips, which a Spanish business claims to have done? Even if customers want it--because they no longer want to worry about cash or credit cards being stolen?

"RFID is a great technology," Atkinson says. "Again, the issue is to get the right rules in place. But they don't want to hear that. They're anti-RFID."

Last week, EPIC and Privacy International gave a "Brandeis" privacy award to the California state senator who has introduced a bill to forcibly pull the plug on Gmail. Sen. Liz Figueroa, a Democrat from Fremont, was given the award for her "excellent work to protect and champion privacy," the groups said in a statement.

Figueroa's bill is so broad, it would ban far more than just Gmail. It would prohibit any Web e-mail or instant-messaging service from doing innocuous things like giving its users the option of filtering dirty jokes, turning ":)" into a smiley graphic, transforming text phrases like "www.news.com" into clickable links or offering important features like e-mail search or mailing-list filtering.

"EPIC claims to be protechnology, but fundamentally, they want to dictate uses of technology and prevent successful commerce among consenting adults," says Jim Harper, a privacy advocate who runs Privacilla.org. "E-mail scanning of various types has been going on for years. It suddenly became a 'privacy' concern, when it became used (for) commercial purposes (by) Google. I think that shows that those activists are anticommerce, not proprivacy."

It's worth noting that EPIC has done laudable privacy work in other areas. It has campaigned against anti-encryption laws, opposed the Clipper Chip, and used the Freedom of Information Act as a tool to pry important information out of government agencies.

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation chose not to join the anti-Gmail coalition. EFF Chairman Brad Templeton said in an essay last week that Google might want to consider some changes but that "it would be ridiculous to see it banned, as Sen. Figueroa would suggest."

EPIC said Figueroa was scheduled to receive the privacy award before the Gmail flap happened. But EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg added: "It seems to me extremely appropriate that Sen. Figueroa would receive a Brandeis award for her efforts to update privacy law to prevent snooping into private communications."

The thinking is that the EFF can accomplish a lot more by moderating its demands on Google. Whether other privacy groups will adopt a similar tack is looking less and less likely.