April 17, 2004
Gmail and cold reading

I have mixed feelings about Gmail. Technically Gmail does nothing that isn't already widely deployed in handling email - on the other hand Gmail threatens to take ad personalization to the level of cold reading.

Tim O'Reilly sums up some reasons why the Gmail privacy backlash is bogus - and the basic argument is summarized early

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. 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. [...] 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.

It is important to make the technical argument that we already have services scanning our email all the time on more servers than I care to think about.
That's not to say that ads for email are not problematic but they are so for other reasons than the ones given in the criticism of Gmail. The main problem is that ads in your email will look a lot more like cold reading. Imagine the kind of advertising you will get, when advertisers get an opportunity to target you right when you're at your most vulnerable. One can imagine the ads targeting death, debt, stress, love, insecurity. The list goes on.
I prefer my life without all the ads, but as long as Google does not indicate any kind of tracking, e.g.letting advertisers know something about who they're getting shown to or use the entire contents of your mailbox to "personalize" your adds - I have only the problem of the tastelessness of advertisers. The essential distinction is that in a single page view it should be the case that you're shown more or less the same ads given the same email body regardless of who you are.

Posted by Claus at April 17, 2004 02:00 PM | TrackBack (0)
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