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GMail
2004-04-07

Well, its out. And to my friends, nope that isn't the project I'm working on. I'll be happy to invite you all as I get more invites.

A disclaimer: I don't speak for Google, and my views aren't those of my employer, and if I was smart I wouldn't say anything, but I figure what the hell.

What the hell is up with this whole GMail is bad thing? I know that Orlowski is giggling with glee as the rest of the world joins him with his idiot Google bashing, and I was amused as always by the "OHMYGOD" of Google Watch (links left off since I'm certainly not helping their pagerank), but so many others have also jumped on this bandwagon... though, why should I be particularly surprised that people with an axe to grind and an agenda would slant the story to benefit themselves.

I'm sure part of the problem is lack of access. We announced the service and are slowly rolling it out, so all people have to talk about is the privacy policy and the features instead of actually talking about the service itself.

As near as I can tell, there are two major complaints that people have. One is with the privacy policy, a clearly marked work in progress that solicits feedback right at the top. The most controversial part states "Residual copies of email may remain on our systems, even after you have deleted them from your mailbox or after the termination of your account." The reason of course is right there before it: "backing up your email". Despite Orlowski's amusing statement about finding "rm", maintaining a large read/write storage in the face of storage failure involves a lot of copies. It is certainly not possible to delete all copies of a message in the time that an web page returns. Even on your local hard disk if you want to actually make something disappear forever you have to do some industrial scrubbing of the drive, something that takes a good long time. This is not surprising, and other websites have similar language.

The second major complaint is that GMail targets ads based on the contents of the email you are reading. Doing this is somehow worse than targeting ads based on all of your previous history with the website, which is how portals like Y! target ads. As near as I can tell, there is a creepiness factor here, possibly caused by the immediacy of the results. Somehow when you get ads for mortgage companies on a website, you don't relate it to the searches/page views you were previously doing on that site for mortgage information because that was days ago... yet if you and your SO are emailing back and forth about mortgages and home buying, having an ad on that page for mortgages and realtors is creepy? A can tell you at least one benefit: the immediacy means that we don't have to store anything about you to do it. Just take the information at hand in the email message and query the targeting servers. To show you targetted information the other way means storing everything you do and running gobs of data mining on all the information and then storing information about what each user is interested in and then using that informtaion to do ad targeting... that sounds worse to me.

There are other complaints that I've seen, of course. The above two at least have some sort of reasonableness to them, if you look at them cockeyed and out of context, but the people who complain that GMail is "every message you send, every message you receive in ONE PLACE, tagged and sorted and indexed...", I can't rightly figure out. So, because GMail provides more storage and better search, its more evil than any other mail provider? Who knew that small mail quotas and poor search were such defenders of privacy and freedom?

In any case, I would think that most of these issues come down to trust: do you trust Google or not? Has Google ever done anything that made you not trust them? Do you believe the Google "do no evil"? As someone on the inside who's seen the code and heard the open discussions amoung the employees, I do. But don't take my word for it, look at our record and make your own decision.

And I'll leave my pet peeve about how "private" email really is for another time.


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The "I work for a big public company" disclaimer:
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.
I am not now, nor have I ever been employed to speak for anyone.
Well, except my own company, but that's gone now.