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Gmail likely to clear U.K. privacy hurdles

Britain's data protection authorities seem to be smiling on Google's plan to offer Web users a gigabyte of e-mail storage in return for targeted advertisements.

Google's forthcoming e-mail service probably won't run into legal issues in Britain, as long as the company doesn't deceive customers about how their personal information will be treated.

Google's Gmail is planned as a free, Web-based e-mail service, similar to Microsoft's MSN Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. One difference, though, is that the search giant says it will offer 1GB of storage--compared with 2MB offered by Hotmail and 4MB by Yahoo.

But privacy advocates are unhappy that Google is planning to scan e-mails and add advertisements that it thinks are relevant to the context of the messages. Last week, Privacy International urged Britain's information commissioner to take action against the service.

But the word Tuesday from the commissioner's office is that, as long as Google is upfront about its plans, the company should have no problem offering the service in the United Kingdom.

"As long as it's transparent to people when they sign up that Google is monitoring their e-mail usage and passing that information on for marketing purposes, then they probably wouldn't be breaking any legislation," a representative of the information commissioner's office said. "Until Gmail's up and running, though, we can't be certain."

The information commissioner's office had previously declined to comment on Privacy International's complaint.

Google has also been attacked for saying copies of e-mails could be retained within Gmail, even after the messages have been deleted by the recipient. This, though, is unlikely to raise the ire of the British authorities, because they recognize that it's often difficult to truly delete data.

"Internet service providers are already dealing with the issue that copies of e-mails remain inside their systems after a user has tried to delete them," the information commissioner's representative said.

Gmail has had a less cordial reception in other parts of the world. A California state senator said Monday that she is drafting legislation to block the service because of Google's plan to place advertising in personal messages.

Google said it has the "highest regard" for the privacy of its users' information and insists that there is nothing sinister about Gmail.

"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. These services are widely accepted, trusted and used by millions every day," a Google representative said.

"We are confident that Gmail is fully compliant with data protection laws worldwide," the representative said. "We look forward to a detailed dialog with data protection authorities across Europe to ensure their concerns are heard and resolved."

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.