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Can Google Base Ads On E-mails Sent To Gmail Accounts? 171

Posted by timothy
from the can-and-do dept.
concealment writes "A new lawsuit targets Google for reading e-mails to target ads, according to TechCrunch. But the issue isn't that Google is reading e-mails from registered users; rather, the company is using e-mails sent from other services to Google users to target ads as well. Google has gotten the side-eye a few times in the past for using e-mail content to serve context-based ads to its Gmail users. And for those Gmail users, Google's hide is covered: the terms of service explicitly state that users' e-mail content determines what ads they see."
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Can Google Base Ads On E-mails Sent To Gmail Accounts?

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  • Nothing to see here.
    • by JustOK (667959)

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      • by dintech (998802) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @11:05AM (#41596699)
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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I knew there was an evil mega- corporation hiding in there.. catching bees with honey and what not.. free services.. ha! bait

    • Feel free to use the paid version of Google's email service. ad-free.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If it has only just been revealed to you that the free version of Gmail uses email to select targeted ads for the users, you don't belong here.

  • I don't think this surprises anyone.

    Also, it's not like your emails are pored over by a human, it's just a computer system.

    The main issue would be what the computer system "learns" and then tags onto your profile, or if it is anonymised should someone get hold of this learning data.

  • Yes, of course (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Despite what disclaimer you may try to put on your email, when you send it, it belongs to the recipient. If they choose to let Google target ads based on it, that's their call.

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @10:19AM (#41596135) Journal
    From the article:

    The lawsuit is on behalf of "all persons in the province of British Columbia who have sent e-mail to a Gmail account" and demands statutory damages for breach of copyright of $500 per e-mail that Google has used for ads. The lawsuit also seeks an injunction against Google's use of e-mails going forward. Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

    $500 per e-mail used for ads? Am I the only person that finds that to be just a tad bit insane?

    Wayne Plimmer of British Columbia has filed a class-action lawsuit against Google for using his e-mails for ads. Plimmer is not a Gmail user, but his concern is that Google is reading and using his e-mails to serve ads to Gmail readers too. Being a non-Gmail user, he never agreed to the terms of service, so the legality of what Google is doing seems murky.

    Okay. I can see that but can you explain how $500 per e-mail for everyone in BC is just about right for how much damages this has caused you?

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Why should they be entitled to anything? They're also free to start their own ad-supported free email system, and if it is better than gmail (snicker snort) then they will surely have the same opportunity. Wake me up when gmail suppresses the ads in the email in some way other than not showing images by default (which it always informs you it's done.)

      • Why should they be entitled to anything?

        Well, I sympathize because the sender (not the recipient) never agreed to this e-mail introspection in any sort of ToS or anything with Google. And I feel like someone should be free to stand up their own e-mail server and have complete freedom from ads at some expense to themselves and some work if they so desire. That choice should always be there and it rubs me just a bit the wrong way that you can't do that if everyone else is using Google. Now, that said, I think in the end the ruling should go down

        • And I feel like someone should be free to stand up their own e-mail server and have complete freedom from ads at some expense to themselves and some work if they so desire.

          You can have freedom from ads. Gmail is not sending ads to non-users.

          If I made a deal with some ad-seller that I'd forward all my mail to him, and he'd send me back some ads, how would you conclude that the ad-seller infringed? Shouldn't you be mad at me, not the ad-seller?

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Again, it only informs the user of the system, not a sender who may be sending e-mails that are then inspected by Google algorithms.

          The sender is entitled to nothing whatsoever. The viewer is entitled to read their messages in a form that makes them happy, which Google apparently provides. Nobody along the way is entitled to display the full message, or read the full message. Now, if Google is suppressing part of the message in a way that the reader does not desire, and at the same time using part of the message to display targeted ads, there will be a problem, but since users desire the default suppression of images (which you can conf

          • at the same time using part of the message to display targeted ads

            The ads are displayed to the right of a message, not in line with it.

            At least, I think that's how it works - I haven't seen an ad in gmail for the past 7 years.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      AFAIK in the American legal system there is no upper limit on damages so everyone claims a number close to infinity at first.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mkendall (69179)

        AFAIK in the American legal system ...

        British Columbia is in Canada, not America.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by tysonedwards (969693)
          Well, studies have shown that a significant number of Americans can't even pick out their own country on a map, so why assume that they would understand that someone doing something stupid within the legal system could reside outside the US?

          Citation: Huffigton Post poll finds that 37% of Americans unable to locate America on map.
          • Are you referring to this [huffingtonpost.com]?

            You might have missed this part.

            Editor's note: This post is a satire.

            To be fair, it's very believable.

        • by psiclops (1011105)

          British Columbia is in Canada, which is in America.

        • So, Canada is in Europe? Or is it Asia?

    • by Nerdfest (867930)

      I'm not sure how he feels copyright applies either. The emails are not being copied, they're being read. Of course, he also seems to be a nutbar. If he sent me a piece of regular mail, I'm completely entitled to do what I want with it, including showing the content to another entity so that they can target ads for him.

      • by vlm (69642)

        If he sent me a piece of regular mail, I'm completely entitled to do what I want with it, including showing the content to another entity ...

        ... to demand price matching on an advertisement?

        Maybe its an end run to destroy that kind of retail interaction.

      • This is on a computer. There only difference between "copied" and "read" is the destination of the bits.
    • by the_B0fh (208483)

      Bullshit lawsuit obviously. If you feel that strongly about sending emails to gmail recipients, block it at your outbound MTA or you know what - don't send that email to gmail recipients.

      That google is an ad supported company is well known. If you choose to interact with them on an ad supported platform, what did you think was going to happen? Sheesh.

      • So what happens when I setup my email at IndustrialComplex@fakeaddress.com to be processed by gmail?

        Not that I think the lawsuit is valid, but you can't really know that google will be handling the mail beforehand without some serious investigation going on.

        • by the_B0fh (208483)

          If you are sending emails out, shouldn't you take responsibility for what you are sending out and who you are sending it to?

          • by PhilHibbs (4537)

            I think it's unreasonable for an email sender to have to research who handles the email for every domain in the world that they send email to, and keep up to date on which of the millions of email hosting companies engage in email scanning for advertising purposes. So no, I don't think the sender has to take responsibility for who runs the mail servers that his recipients use.

            • by Dishevel (1105119)

              For the last 20 years as far as I can tell it has been deemed unreasonable for any "Normal person" to be responsible for any part of their life when there are deep pockets somewhere near by.

              • by AmiMoJo (196126)

                No, we just recognize that most people don't have the time or expertise to fully read and comprehend the TOS and various other agreements they are faced with every single day. Do you really think that the average person will check the domain name attached to every single email address they communicate with, go to that site, find and read the TOS and then decide if they want to reply? Is that a reasonable expectation?

                In this instance I think Google is behaving acceptable, I just disagree with this idea that

        • Unless the person setting their domain up does something unusual then you can tell it is being processed by google by looking at the MX records for the domain. If the user is just using GMail's ability to suck in email via POP or IMAP or is forwarding their mail to Google, then it would seem it would be the user who is sending your mail to Google who would be at fault.

          • That's kind of my point though. It means you have to check the MX records of everyone you ever email just to ensure that it isn't being sent to be processed?

            It's a bit of two front problem. We need to be able to communicate easily with people, and we need the ability to be secure in our communications. Checking the MX records for everyone violates that first aspect.

            We need a system that behaves like, well mail. You send a letter TO someone, and if anyone screws with it or reads it enroute they can be pr

            • I sort of assumed that when mail gets sent the MX records are checked anyway so that your email client knows where to deliver the message. I could be wrong on that though.

              The issue in question seems to be the fact that the recipients have given permission to other parties (i.e. Google) to read the data. In this I would concede that there is nothing a sender can do to protect his/her data if the recipient is sharing it with others.

        • by Dishevel (1105119)

          Moving your domain to Apps is a paid move.
          No ads.
          Love it.

    • Well, clearly the $500 is excessive as compensation. But that's just the point: it isn't compensation. Typically statutory damages are set higher than compensatory damages would have been for the added punitive effect and, sometimes, to encourage enforcement through private lawsuits.

      So, sure, we can debate whether $500 is fair, but it's beside the point to argue that it isn't fair because it overcompensates. It is supposed to overcompensate. The right question is whether it's fair on the grounds intended to

    • It's far better than the usual fines they get which are pocket change to the company and therefore don't teach them a lesson.

      And given how much a citizen, who has far less money, gets fined for sharing MP3s, I'd actually say $500 per email is not enough.
    • by N1AK (864906)
      He sent the email to something@gmail.com without a contract with google whom he doesn't have a contract with so they can do what the fuck they want with it. If I say how I know a friend loves hot chocolate to him in Starbucks and the barrista overhears and mentions that they do in fact sell hot chocolate I'd get laughed out of court for trying to sue him for it.

      Such a BS lawsuit.Hopefully Google will let him piss away his cash and the court will tell him where to get off.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @10:26AM (#41596247) Journal
    All emails are property of the recipient. And Google has permission to read the email of its users. So it can read any email sent by anybody. In fact it might even have additional rights to enforce spam filters.
    • Once the recipient receives his mails it belongs to him.
      Before that, they belong to the sender, and google is crawling those emails before they are received by the sender (remember, received by google != received by the recipient, google is just a middleman).

  • Email is not secure (Score:5, Informative)

    by Hentes (2461350) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @10:29AM (#41596279)

    Email protocols are unsecured, sensitive mails should be encrypted.

    • GPG for Gmail at the very least.... Problem is getting the technically challenged to use GPG which doesn't lend itself to the grandmas and soccer moms of the world.
      • Much easier to get them to encrypt instant messages with OTR, by installing Adium or Pidgin on their machines.
        • Adium and Pidgin are not email clients, AFAIK. Maybe you meant something like Thunderbird or Mutt.

          • I meant that it's easier to get people to encrypt their IMs with OTR than email with GPG and mail client plugins. They still wont exchange fingerprints to get authentication, but that's another battle I think.
    • by Sloppy (14984)

      Totally agreed. There's not nearly as much email encryption as is justified.

      But here's a thought experiment. Suppose you send someone an encrypted email. Suppose that other person has signed a contract in blood, that they promise they will send the decrypted plaintext of all the email they ever receive, to an ad company.

      How would you know? And whether you knew or not, were you harmed by this? And assuming you were harmed, who harmed you?

      I think the person who decides to share all their email, is the mo

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      It's less about email and more about tracking and privacy.

      You and I with Google accounts have signed up to give our first borns to the mighty mountain view company.

      But there are people without, and for them, Google can easily be tracking them and using information gathered from Gmail users to help build up profiles of these non-Google users, who have never agreed to the Google ToS, or more improtantly, the Google Privacy Policy (which applies to Google users only).

      Gmail is the target because it's probably t

      • by Hentes (2461350)

        What I'm saying is, when I send out an unencrypted email open for anyone to snoop on I don't have expectations of privacy. The situation would be different if email protocols were encrypted an Google would take advantage of their position of being one end of the communication to read them.

      • by psiclops (1011105)

        I haven't seen it written anywhere that Google is identifying the sender and using the contents of the sent e-mail to target ads at the sender/

    • User who see the ads are using webmail, and webmail does not generally support GPG.

  • by ledow (319597) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @10:30AM (#41596295) Homepage

    I'm gonna sue any anti-spam filter - because they ALL read the emails I've sent to other people who use them, without my permission, and may be targeting ads based on that.

    And every antivirus software that integrates into Outlook.

    And everything that might conceivably view the content of an email en-route (e.g. intermediate mail servers).

    If the recipient chooses to use such software - that's up to them. If you send an email to them and they have agreed for Google to receive it on their behalf with their permission to read it, then that's not Google's problem.

    It's like suing a courier firm that someone sent to your door to pick up a parcel, because they looked inside the package and the recipient that nominated the courier firm allowed them to.

  • huh - so thats why i keep seeing ads for cryptographic products and services.

  • by Geeky (90998) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @11:01AM (#41596639)

    I have another concern with gmail, which is that it might be leaking ad information between gmail users.

    By that I mean that if I'm corresponding with another gmail user, I get ads that are unrelated to anything we've discussed but which may be related to things that they are likely to have emailed or received emails about.

    Just to give a trivial example, a friend has a pet. She has emailed me but never once mentioned the pet in email to me. I do not have any pets, nor have I mentioned them in my emails, but I now get ads for pet food. There are other examples that suggest my ads are based on my correspondents emails that weren't sent to me - that they are pulling in the ads based on both of our email histories.

  • I like it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @11:03AM (#41596657)
    I actually like that they do this, because you can disable ads with it. If you receive an email at gmail that contains anything "Bad" such as "My mom died last night" then Google disables ads when you view that email. Try it. Long ago I added the string "my dog got hit by a car" to my email sig, in white text so it doesn't show up, as a favor to friends on gmail who get mail from me. They never have to look at ads while reading my emails.
    • That's actually a neat feature (and a good idea to exploit)...but isn't it still a lot easier to just install AdBlock? Really, it's like two clicks away.
    • You could have just told them to use adblock.
      Also, non-gmail users who view email in plain text, will see that text.

  • by ljw1004 (764174) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @11:06AM (#41596711)

    I hate advertising. I liked this quote from Banksy, a UK artist:

    "People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs."

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TheSpoom (715771)

      He said better than I could the reason why I have been avoiding ads as much as I can in my daily life. I pay for Pandora so I don't get inserted ads in my music. I use ad-blockers on websites, and pay for the ad-free version if offered. I record television and fast-forward through the ads. Once you're used to avoiding the ads, it's interesting how much clearer things become, and how annoying it is if they can't be avoided in some other medium.

      Advertisers can't control my eyeballs or ears.

      • People on slashdot need to realize that in general, they make way too big a deal about ads, and their views are certainly not shared by the general public, nor are they with the whole slashdot audience

        I don't give a crap about ads, as long as they are unintrusive and let me keep working. The whole by-line of "Advertisers can't control my eyeballs or ears." is bull-crap to me, because personally I consider myself a bit more intelligent than the average monkey, and I am pretty sure that advertising does not i

        • You don't think advertising impacts your purchasing process in any way whatsoever? I think you are underestimating the effectiveness and pervasiveness of marketing, my friend.

          You've NEVER decided to see a movie based on a trailer? You've NEVER thought about a product that you heard about on the radio or saw on TV? You've NEVER seen an advertisement for a restaurant and thought, "Mmmm, that looks good."?

          As Banksy's quote points out, the effects of advertising are subtle. Most of us are willing to live wi

        • by TheSpoom (715771)

          Hey, I didn't force you to block ads or anything. The discussion happened to be about ads, so I chimed in. View all the ads you want, as long as I can reasonably avoid them.

  • I have never seen ads in my inbox. Apparently, evil google hasn't found a way to hijack imap.

    They can target ads all they want, because I won't see them anyway. They won't even get pageview statistics, since I'm not using their obnoxious webmail interface. MWAHAHAHA!

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @11:34AM (#41597003) Homepage

    It boils down to one question: Can I legally delegate reading and sorting my e-mail to my secretary/receptionist/administrative-assistant/etc.? That involves exactly the same situation, a third party reading the e-mail with the consent of the recipient. If it's legal, then Plimmer has no basis for his suit. There's a lot of basis for saying the networks and servers carrying the e-mail between the sender and the recipient can't go reading it, but there's not a lot of law restricting what the recipient can do or have done to/with mail and e-mail once they've received it. If you don't want the recipient letting others see the mail, you're going to have to have an agreement in place with them beforehand about that and your only recourse if they spread the mail around anyway will be against them for breach of that agreement. You won't have any recourse against any of the people they gave the mail to, because those people have no duty to you to not look at the recipient's mail (note: the recipient's mail, not yours, it ceased to be yours when you handed it over to the recipient).

  • Not that this is necessary, but;
    gpg -c filename
    #Enter passwd, upload, send. However, just be sure to occasionally send large chunks of random copy/pasted nonsense too. You could set up a crontab to send strange output to a specific text file, and use it as a base for all your "confuse" mails. Occasionally I copy/paste large bodies of text, run them through a weak substitution cipher, then email them.
    - Making Hal stupid, one email at a time.
  • By the same logic used to sue Google, spammers would now be entitled to damages from every anti-spam service and device in the world. At $500 per email, that's one hell of a payoff for those bastards.

  • by tpstigers (1075021) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @02:13PM (#41598847)

    While watching television the other night, I was subjected to a commercial for kitty litter. After a moment's thought, I realized I have never seen such an ad online. In fact, on the rare occasion that I actually notice ads online, they tend to be for goods and/or services that are, in fact, of interest to me.

    Personally, I'm pretty okay with targeted ads. But then, I don't give a rat's ass whether anybody reads my email.

  • In all honesty, once I was having an email exchange with a mechanic that charged me too much money for not enough work. Gmail stuck an ad up for a much better mechanic.
  • I have always been surprised that people accept that services like hotmail and many others take the liberty to add advertisements on outgoing mails, without the senders knowledge. When you send a mail from a hotmail (or gmx etc) account, you actually don't know the exact content of the mail you are sending. The recipient will be spammed with an ad, which you have never seen and of course, not explicitly allowed.

    I find this incredibly rude and totally inacceptable.

    Google, on the other hand, sends your mails

    • I've never seen ads or spam added to my incoming emails, nor from gmail, nor anywhere else.
      Are you sure it's not an issue on your end?

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