Google's Gmail service sparks controversy

Google has triggered a heated privacy debate following the unveiling of Gmail, its new free e-mail service.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  April 7, 2004

Google has triggered a heated privacy debate following the unveiling of Gmail, its new free e-mail service. Google first announced it was beginning testing Gmail via a spoof-style press release distributed on April Fool's Day (April 1). What should have been a good news story for the company however turned sour, as following Gmail’s announcement some in the IT industry immediately began voicing privacy concerns, wanting to know exactly what Google might do with all the data it acquires through owning and running e-mail accounts. Concerns focus on the issue of cookies. The cookie that Google uses to index each user's internet searches, and the cookie it uses to determine each user's identity, could in theory be linked due to Gmail using Google's main search cookie to index e-mail messages. Privacy campaigners are dead set against any situation arising in which Google could end up comparing such sets of data, which would not be difficult due to this data being sorted, indexed and stored centrally. As Google is thought to be planning to go public in the near future, the idea that an external organisation could potentially take the firm over and thus own such comprehensive and personal user data is adding fuel to the fire of the debate. Also worrying some is Gmail's privacy policy, which states that the company can retain data after users have deleted e-mail messages and even after they have terminated their Gmail accounts. As a result of Gmail's launch, privacy watchdog Privacy International has already approached the UK Information Commissioner suggesting an investigation. If Gmail is launched in full, it will mark Google's strongest recent attempt to steal market share from Microsoft and Yahoo. Both of these companies would like to weaken Google's position as the key search engine of choice for millions of users, so this move by Google would constitute an attempt to attack them on their home territory first. The amount of storage Gmail offers (a massive 1GB for each user) should help it stand out from both of its competitors' free e-mail packages, as currently these firms only offer similar storage amounts as part of paid for e-mail services. Gmail is currently being beta tested by users around the world. At present it is only available in English. In addition to 1GB of data space, the service offers an e-mail search facility and groups messages according to their content, resulting in each message and its associated replies being displayed as a conversation (similar to how topic threads are grouped on many web page forums). Google claims that Gmail will not contain any pop-up or banner adverts, though it will still feature text ads like those displayed down the right-hand side of Google's search pages.

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