May 27, 2004 3:47 PM PDT

California Senate approves anti-Gmail bill

The California state Senate on Thursday approved a bill that takes aim at Google's new Gmail service, placing strict limits on e-mail providers seeking to scan customer messages for advertising and other purposes.

The bill passed after revisions that removed a key provision that would have required e-mail providers to win the consent of anyone sending messages to their service before scanning messages.

"My legislation guarantees that our most private communications will remain just that--private," said Sen. Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont, the bill's author, according to a statement.

In a statement, Google said that it is taking a neutral position on the bill as it continues to work with Figueroa on the measure.

"Google has worked in good faith with Senator Figueroa and her staff to address her concerns about privacy and online communications," the company wrote. "We believe we have reached conceptual agreement on most of the key points, but we have not yet reached agreement on all the details. As is the norm in the legislative process, work still remains on the specific language of the bill."

The Senate action comes as Google is seeking to fend off an unexpected backlash against Gmail, a Web-based e-mail service that turned heads when it was unveiled in late March with an offer of 1GB of free storage.

Google touted the service as a reinvention of e-mail, one based on a searchable database archive, rather than traditional folder systems. Still, some critics raised concerns that Gmail could subject consumers to unwarranted privacy risks.

First, the amount of storage offered means that customers might never again have to delete e-mail, eventually creating a vast repository of personal correspondence that could be subject to review by police and other outsiders. Second, Google proposed placing ads in messages based on the mail's content, requiring customers to agree to let the company scan their correspondence for keywords.

Figueroa's bill would explicitly allow e-mail and instant-messaging providers to scan the content of messages to deliver advertisements, as long as the providers meet certain restrictions on how the data is used. Information gleaned from e-mails cannot be retained, shared with a third party, or shown to any employee or other "natural person," according to the bill. In addition, messaging providers must permanently delete messages at the request of customers.

The bill carves out some exceptions for antispam and virus filtering.

Technology groups opposing the bill noted this week that limits on e-mail scanning would appear to affect a large number of widely used industry practices that have not sparked any privacy concerns to date.

"We are unaware of any instances in which a consumer has been harmed as a result of the computer scanning that takes place today. In fact, we believe that the scanning technology is evolving largely in the pursuit of protecting consumers' interest," the American Electronics Association wrote in a letter to Figueroa on Wednesday. "Examples include spam and virus filtering, searching, spellchecking, auto-responding, managing mailing lists, flagging urgent messages, converting incoming e-mail to cell phone text messages, automatic saving and sorting into folders, converting text URLs to clickable links, converting date stamps to local time zones, building automatic address books, and so forth."

7 comments

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I heard differently
My understanding was that the senator finally got a clue as to what was going on, and took out the language banning GMail, and basically saying that no human could read the mail. It's a stupid law anyway, since it's totally voluntary, and not sneaky in any way. Politicians should learn to think, not just react emotionally. I was one of the ones that wrote her to express these opinions; hopefully, she read it (I did get a canned reply).
Posted by winfidel (6 comments )
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Not much of a backlash
at least if you look at the number of people begging to be invited by someone with a GMail account. There are people selling invitations on EBay for $80.00.
Personally I'll just wait for Gmail to open to the general public (that is if those damn congress critters don't ruin it).
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
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ePostcards are not eMail
I don't think people realize (or care) that without encryption, their mail can be read about as easily as a post card in the mail. So, it does not suprise me that Gmail is going to be a big hit, however, I wonder what the Gmail companies are going to do if people choose to use the electronic version of a "real world" solution to privacy and actually encrypt everything. After all, if people realized that they are actually using the electronic version of a Post Card, how many messages would be sent unencrypted? Also, I wonder if they will allow you to store encrypted (letter in an envelope style) information at all?
Posted by Mr. Dave (1 comment )
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Well said
This is what happens when officials in government try to regulate technology they know little or nothing about.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
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Are you kidding me???
If you don't like whatever intrusion you think there will be using gMail, DON'T USE IT! It's your choice. Why does this legislature think they have anything to say about it? Pathetic!
Posted by (1 comment )
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The Story Was Hard to Follow
In one paragraph, the story said the bill got revised from the original, apparently irrational, dopey version so that it now explicitly allowed computer scanning (as long as humans didn't read or learn anything).

Then the next paragraphs said an electronics group protested the bill because of its regulation of scanning. The story didn't explain whether the group simply didn't understand the revised bill, or if it was actually protesting something else about it (like the ban on human involvement), or what. It's not really coherent.
Posted by (1 comment )
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What's the Bill Number? Any recent changes?
It would be really helpful, when you write about legislation like this, if you include the bill number, and a URL if there is one. California and the Feds are both good about putting bills on the web. <p>
The original version of this bill was cluelessly and carelessly written, and I wrote a rant called "Three dozen things Liz Figueroa's anti-Google bill would break" about how it bans almost all of the current webmail services based in California (certainly any with friendly user interfaces), as well as interfering with many obvious and useful things that can be built on Instant Messaging systems. It'd be nice to know if Senator Figueroa has fixed anything in response to comments from the public or from Google, or whether it still breaks most of them.
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