Google will stop scanning kids emails for advertisers, according to an announcement released today by the Mountain View, California, media giant. Until today, Google has routinely scanned all Gmail accounts for advertising keywords, using that information to target advertising on the basis of the contents of emails sent or received by Gmail users.
Approximately 30 million email accounts belonging to students and their teachers are now off-limits to Google’s data collection engines. The company has also vowed to stop collecting advertising target data from its Google Apps for Education program, which offers email, calendars, lesson plans, remote assignments and other useful tools for teacher and their students.
Google’s policy change may be in reaction to a lawsuit filed by a group of California students alleging that the company’s practice of monitoring their emails to target them for advertising messages violated federal and state privacy laws. The suit, filed under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974, which ensures the privacy of the educational records of students under 18 years of age.
Google Gmail users may not be aware of it, but they gave their informed consent allowing Google to surveil their email messages for the express purpose of targeting them for advertisers when they originally signed up for their Google accounts. Privacy advocates like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), have been advising consumers that, when they email Gmail account users, their emails are also analyzed by Google’s robotic scanners, even though they have not given informed consent to the company. EPIC believes that Google compiles advertising profiles on those non-Google customers.
The 30 million subscribers that Google is now going to protect from its own eavesdropping represent just seven percent of the 450 million Gmail users who now have Google’s email services. At its current growth rate, Gmail expects to pick up 30 million additional customers within 12 months. Now the most widely used web-based email service in the world, the 10-year-old service is available in 57 languages. Google may have stopped there because co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are known to be fond of puns.
Over the past two years, Microsoft has been going hammer and tongs at Google, denigrating their arch rival’s practice of reading its customers’ mail while claiming that their Microsoft Outlook email program does not analyze customer messages or use them to target customers for advertising messages. That claim was contradicted recently,when it was revealed that Microsoft had been snooping on its own employees’ email accounts to identify the individual who was leaking Microsoft’s trade secrets – including the tool used to build key codes for their products – to a well-known hacker.
By making the announcement that they were no longer doing it, Google has tacitly admitted that they were doing it, a seeming violation of its “don’t be evil” motto. However, the lawsuit and the subsequent announcement only addresses the 30 million students that Google is able to identify because they are enrolled in the Google Apps for Education program. No one, including Google, knows how many of its other Gmail account holders are under the age of 18. When signing up for a new account, users are asked to provide their dates of birth, so it would be theoretically feasible for Google to weed out all of the other Gmail users who are also under 18 years of age.
As part of the restructuring of its Education program, the company will gradually discontinue Adsense campaigns being run by Google Education groups on websites they created under that program. The ads that are currently in place will continue to run, but new ads cannot be added, nor can the existing advertisements be changed.
As part of its general announcement, Google also indicated that it has discontinued ad scanning for all Google Apps for Business, Government, other legacy users associated with these accounts will no longer have their Gmail messages scanned for targeted advertising.
Google’s bread and butter business is advertising placement, and the linchpin for that bread and butter business is Google’s ability to target advertising to the known interest of their subscribers. By giving away a large chunk of their total number of Gmail users, Google would be doing grievous harm to its business….if they were not also analyzing and utilizing the search habits of Google users.
Every time someone performs a search using the Google search engine, the subject of that search becomes attached to the subscribers account so that, whenever they visit any website utilizing Google Adsense, advertisements relevant to the subscribers previous searches will be displayed on the website. The ability to target customers for advertisements in this manner is what makes Google a multi-billion dollar business. There are no signs that they will give up that practice.
Google reported revenues of $58.6 billion last year. Not being evil has its rewards.
By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner