The Californian state Senate has voted to introduce safeguards on email services that, like Google's Gmail, scan incoming and outgoing email for specific terms in order to display advertisements. Google views its new email service as an extension of its advertising business.
Despite intensive lobbying, and the full weight of right-wing think tanks and Internet marketing hypesters, keen to exploit the commercial potential of personal data troves, the Senate voted 24-8 to prevent the misuse of the data.
Few will object to the terms in Sen. Liz Figueroa's bill, which explicitly allows instant messaging and email providers to scan the text of messages for advertising and to remove spam and malicious code. However, data-hoarders won't be able to transfer it to third-parties or allow their staff to examine emails without consent. Most importantly, the service provider is forbidden from retaining "personally identifiable information or user characteristics obtained, derived, or inferred" from the scanning process.
Privacy campaigners have responded to the defense of "don't like it - don't' use it" by pointing to the pervasive nature of the service. Because content scanning is applied to incoming as well as outgoing emails, Internet users have the choice of being scanned or ignoring friends. "We're not going to have any choice but to send mail to people at Gmail just to function in the e-mail world," says campaigner Daniel Brandt.
"Quite simply, there is no hue and cry among e-mailers to have ads put into their e-mails, just as there is little or no interest among phone users to hear, at the beginning of a call, 'This conversation is brought to you by?'" the Sen. Figueroa had written, introducing the legislation. "In addition, there is a general abhorrence for the idea that the privacy and confidentiality we expect in virtually every other communicative medium is something that is, or should be, optional."
The wording may yet be amended. The bill now moves to the State Assembly, where the Democrats have a majority. ®