May 25, 2004 7:00 PM PDT

Lawmaker tones down anti-Gmail bill

A California lawmaker has revised a proposal to block Google's new e-mail service, removing a key provision that would have have made it difficult or impossible for the Web search giant to operate Gmail in the state.

State Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) late Tuesday put the finishing touches on the bill, SB 1822, in a bid to bring the measure to a vote in front of the full Senate before the Legislature recesses on Friday.

The bill was introduced a month ago, when it was heralded as a measure that would prevent Gmail from intruding on users' privacy.

Now, according to a draft seen by CNET, the revised bill omits a provision that would have required Google to win the full and informed consent of non-Gmail users sending e-mail to the service--a hurdle that Gmail advocates widely assumed would be impossible to meet.

In addition, the bill would explicitly allow e-mail and instant-messaging providers to scan the content of messages in order 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," the draft states. In addition, messaging providers must permanently delete messages at the request of customers.

The draft states in part: "A provider of electronic mail or instant-messaging service may review, examine or otherwise evaluate the content of a customer's incoming, outgoing or stored e-mail or instant messages only if the review is for the automated and contemporaneous display of an advertisement to the user while the user is viewing the e-mail or instant message."

The changes come 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 said the changes do not mark a reversal from the bill's original intent. California already requires third-party consent under the state's anti-wiretap law, she said, and therefore it was not necessary to include the provision in her bill.

Three nonprofit groups have asked the California attorney general to review the anti-wiretap law and issue an interpretation regarding third-party consent in regard to e-mail services such as Gmail, although some legal experts believe the claim is weak.

"This will be first law in the nation to ensure that this type of technology is never used to create files on consumers," Figueroa said in an interview. "It forbids e-mail providers from retaining personally identifiable information that is obtained from the use of the technology; it forbids human access to the information; and forbids the transfer of information to third parties. And it requires that when consumers delete e-mail, the file is deleted and is not retained somewhere."

A Google representative declined to comment on the revised bill, saying the company was still reviewing the changes.

Technology lobbyists said the changes appear to be a win for Google, since the revised version reverses key aspects of the original. But most agreed that if the bill becomes law, it will be bad news for technology companies operating in the state.

"Our membership is still upset with this bill," said Roxanne Gould, vice president of California government and public affairs for American Electronics Association, a trade group. "It would appear to have many unintended consequences, for example, preventing filtering aimed at preventing minors from viewing adult material."


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The senator is still ridiculously clueless
This is frankly a very common-sense issue: Companies must be responsible for fully disclosing how they use personal data. Period. End of story. If Google wants to retain folks' personal data WITH THEIR EXPLICIT PERMISSION in order to provide new or improved services, I don't see why California law should prohibit consumers from entering into such a contract. Frankly, I'd personally like for Google to take into account mail I send and receive in order to show me more targeted ads over time AND improve my Web searches.

Of course, not everyone may want to be part of such a contract. And that's their right. But it shouldn't be up to the Nanny government (or clueless, grandstanding senators) to dictate what sort of contracts people enter into with businesses, as long as the consumer is fully informed and consents to the use of the info.

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Posted by ThatAdamGuy (21 comments )
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why does any law ned to be made on this? As long as programs and web sites tell you what they do, no foul
Posted by Cracell (1 comment )
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as if the nsa doesn't always read all your mail all the time anyway
the &gt;elephant&lt; in the G-mailroom that no one wants to comment upon [including der Gropenfuhrer, califoricants, et al] is the fact that google doesn't have to save all your email so that it might be read later by the police. the NSA already reads all electronic[http://phone/cel/email/TELNET/microwave/vhf-fm/ham/marine/aviation/pager/IRRIDIUM/INMARSAT/telegraph/under-sea cable/smokesignal...get it-ALL|http://phone/cel/email/TELNET/microwave/vhf-fm/ham/marine/aviation/pager/IRRIDIUM/INMARSAT/telegraph/under-sea cable/smokesignal...get it-ALL] communication as a matter of course. don't begin to fool yourselves into thinking you might be hijacked -you already have been, since you are on-line reading this. GET OVER IT. the perfume is alread out of the bottle. no one can put your secrets in a secure place &gt;&gt;IF you insist on non-encrypted-from-the-keyboard-communication.&lt;&lt; i was a youngster when public-key debued. my eyes are yellow now, like bellies of the faint-of-heart who don't, or can't, summon the courage to encrypt all their communications. after i'm dead, they'll STILL be whinning about the wrong part of the problem. GET A CLUE.
Posted by neidr (3 comments )
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Anti-Gmail = inability to see a better world
As a California resident whose company relies on the web to exist, Google and a number of its functions, including Gmail, have, in a small way, positively revolutionized the way we do business. There is nothing about Gmail I have read that gives me any pause whatsoever. Another Google/Gmail user has made a number of excellent points in one of his posts, and I will paraphrase and add to them here in the hopes that the good Senator and all of California's legislature understands the fabulous concept that underlies Gmail as it stands. Here are some things to consider:

1. There are already hundreds of millions of users of hosted mail services
at AOL, Hotmail, MSN, and Yahoo! These services routinely scan all mail for
viruses and spam. My small company's own small web host also scans and filters through my e-mail for keywords that indicate spam or viruses, and there must be many thousands of these small web hosting firms across the nation. They could all abuse my e-mail if they wanted to, and much easier than Google can since it is far less unwieldy. Despite the claims of critics, I don't see that the kind
of automated text scanning that Google would need to do to insert context-sensitive ads is all that different from the kind of automated text scanning that is used to detect spam. (And in fact, those oppressed by spam should look forward to having Google's brilliant search experts tackle spam
detection as part of their problem set!) Google doesn't have humans reading this mail; it has programs reading them. Yes, Google could instruct a program to mine the stored email for confidential information. But so could
Yahoo! or AOL or MSN today. (Perhaps people feel Google is to be feared because they seem to so good at what they do. But that seems rather a counterproductive point of view.)

2. For that matter, the very act of sending an email message consists of having a number of programs on different machines read and store your mail. Every time you send an email message, it is typically routed through a number of computers to get to its destination. Run the traceroute command at a command prompt on any Linux or UNIX system (including Mac OS X) or tracert on a Windows system to see the hops that your internet packets go through from your machine to any destination site. Anyone equipped with a packet sniffer at any of those sites can snoop any mail that they want. In fact, the NSA recently proved the effectiveness of this approach by tracking down terrorists by way of their mail traffic.

3. The amount of personal data already collected by credit agencies and direct marketers dwarfs what might be gleaned from email. There are folks
right now, who know everything you've ever bought. Heck, just recently, I was shopping in Bath, England, and made a large purchase in an antiquarian bookshop. Fifteen minutes later, I was four buildings down the street in a second bookshop, tried to make another purchase, and had my card rejected. Meanwhile, back in California, my wife was receiving a call, wondering if
the card had been stolen. "Why would someone halfway around the world be spending so much on books?" they wanted to know. That's real time
monitoring! Privacy advocates argue that privacy is a slippery slope. But we're already a long way down that slope, and I have a lot more trust in Google to do the right thing to protect my privacy than I have in credit card and direct marketing companies! I certainly don't see why Google is being singled out. There are so many bigger issues to worry about, from RFID tagging to surveillance cameras on London street corners, that programmed
scanning of email for targeted ad insertion doesn't seem like too big a deal to me, especially when it's disclosed up front to participants in the service.

4. Gmail's offer of extended storage means that hosted email accounts might appeal to more than the casual home user, resulting in the storage of more mission-critical messages, but considering that many businesses are already hosting critical business data at outside service providers like &lt;<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>&gt;, I hardly think that is a show stopper.

People are also expressing concerns about Google's plan to insert targeted advertising into email sent with the service. Once again, I find myself
baffled by the uproar. Some reasons:

1. No one is going to be forced to use gmail. If you don't like ads in your mail, don't use the service. Let the market decide. (Note: as far as I can tell, ads do not appear in outgoing mail, so there's no spamming of non-subscribers. Ads appear only in the mailbox of the gmail user. And as
with Google adwords on search results, the ads appear in text boxes off to the side of the message, where they can easily be ignored if the information they provide is not useful.)

2. Google has a history of providing tasteful, unobtrusive, useful advertising. When all the other online services rushed to plaster their
sites with bigger and more obnoxious banner ads, skyscrapers, popups, pop-unders, and screaming animations, Google held the line, and defined a
new paradigm for advertising that no one seems to mind.

Meanwhile, I am entranced with the benefits that Gmail will hopefully provide:

1. The ability to search through my email with the effectiveness that has made Google the benchmark for search. How many times have people asked,
"When can I have Google to search my hard disk?" That's a hard problem, as long as it's just your disk, on your isolated machine. But it's solvable
once Google has lots and lots of structured data to work with, and can build algorithms to determine patterns in that data. Gmail is Google's brilliant solution to that problem: don't search the desktop, move the desktop application to a larger, searchable space where the metadata can be
collected and made explicit, as it is on the web.

2. The second-order search through "six degrees of separation" promised (but not yet delivered) by all of the social networking services such as
Friendster, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Google's own Orkut. These services are essentially a hack, designed to get around the fact that no one has yet re-invented the address book for the era of the internet. Why should I have to spam all my friends, asking them to "join my network", if my email client is smart enough to know who I know, how often I communicate with them, as well as who they know, and how well.

Eventually, I imagine I'll be able to ask Gmail, who do I know who can help me to reach someone I'm looking to meet...and get a reasonable answer,
without any invasion of privacy. After all, I have lots of friends who know me well enough to make a recommendation to their friends, and pass on
contact info if appropriate. Gmail wouldn't break any new social ground here -- it would just make it easier to find out who to ask, without revealing any confidential information. (Meanwhile, the existing social network
services DO lead people to reveal lots of private information that could be misused by spammers and other electronic harvesters. Gmail could provide
this information more securely.)

3. Storage of my critical data on one of the largest, most reliable data storage banks in the world. As Rich Skrenta made so clear in his recent
weblog posting, Google is the shape of the future. Forget Moore's Law and Metcalfe's Law. Storage is getting cheaper faster than any other part of the
technology infrastructure. I remember Bob Morris, head of IBM's Storage Division and the Almaden Research Labs, telling me a couple of years ago,
that before too long, storage would be cheap enough and small enough that someone who wanted to do so could film every moment of his life, and carry the record around in a pocket. Scary? Maybe. But the future is always scary to those who cling to the past. It is enormously exciting if you focus on the possibilities. Just think how much value Google and other online information providers have already brought to all of our lives -- the ability to find facts, in moments, from a library larger than any of us could have imagined a decade ago.

Gmail is fascinating to me as a watershed event in the evolution of the internet. In a brilliant Copernican stroke, Gmail turns everything on its
head, rejecting the personal computer as the center of the computing universe, instead recognizing that applications revolve around the network as the planets revolve around the Sun. But Google and gmail go even further, showing that once internet apps truly get to scale, they'll make the network itself disappear into the universal virtual computer, the internet as
operating system

Pioneers like Google are remaking the computing industry before our eyes. Google of course isn't one computer -- it's a hundred thousand computers, by report -- but to the user, it appears as one. Our personal computers, our phones, and even our cars, increasingly need to be thought of as access and local storage devices. The services that matter are all going to run on the global virtual computer that the internet is becoming.

But in the end, I believe that the world we're building is too complex for tight coupling to be the dominant paradigm. It will be a long time, if ever, before any one company is in control of enough programs and enough devices and enough data to start dictating to consumers and competitors what innovations will be allowed. We're entering a period of renewed competition and innovation in the computer industry, a period that will utterly transform the technology world we know today.
Posted by bnathan1240 (1 comment )
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