Google Mail: Novelty or Nosy?

Google's got more privacy issues than ever surrounding its not-even-live-yet email service, Gmail. According to news agencies today, a California lawmaker seeks to block the service even before it gets out of the gate. I have to admit that, after my last article on this topic, Google offered to let me test-drive Gmail. But even prior to that, I didn't see quite why it was taking so much heat.

Gmail hit the scene with a bang on April 1, tempting many, including myself, to think "April Fool's Day!" However, it was all too serious, a bid to take on other free email providers -- and search competitors -- Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) .

It's that 1 gigabyte of storage space that's most dangerous to the aforementioned foes. But the key to the brouhaha -- and possibly Yahoo!'s and Microsoft's saving grace -- is advertising. In return for more storage than most people could possibly need, Google's computers search Gmails for keywords and serve up targeted ads. On that news, privacy advocates got up in arms.

Though I understand the privacy argument, I also think it's overblown. The sheer interactive nature of the Internet has changed advertising. These days, there's often a trade of some degree of privacy for some technological service that makes life easier or better. Being what it is, I don't see how Gmail should be judged any harsher.

For example, Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) knows what you want. It analyzes items you've bought on its site and suggests other things you might like when you return. We recently learned that Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) tracks viewer habits, though it doesn't link data to individuals (the same argument Google uses concerning its Gmail tracking).

As far as my experience with Google's Gmail thus far, ads come up as links on the side of the Web page, much like any regular Google search. For example, a "test" email I received in Gmail rendered up a few links on the side of the page for testing services. Scary! (Not really.)

At any rate, this is an old argument that rears its head and then dies down whenever some new technology hits the scene. Are people really that offended by Amazon.com, or willing to let that TiVo remote be pried from their hot little hands? I'm not convinced.

Is Google kicking the double-o's out of Yahoo!? Or will Yahoo! emerge victorious? Chat with others at the Yahoo! discussion board.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.


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