Saturday, November 16, 2013

But we're not READING your mail...we're just using tools and capturing the essence of it

I haven’t even finished reading an article and I already want to share A SECOND something out of it. (For the first something, see my post in my tymshft blog about futuristic - or not futuristic - advertising guidance.)

Phil Baumann shared an article by Evgeny Morozov that, among other things, notes that Silicon Valley is not subject to the same critical analysis that is applied to, say, the oil industry. As I said, I’m still reading the article, but I was struck by a particular illustration that Morozov used.

Imagine I told you that the post office could run on a different, innovation-friendly business model. Forget stamps. They cost money – and why pay money when there’s a way to send letters for free? Just think about the world-changing potential: the poor kids in Africa can finally reach you with their pleas for more laptops! So, instead of stamps, we would switch to an advertising-backed system: we’d open every letter that you send, scan its contents, insert a relevant ad, seal it, and then forward it to the recipient.

Sounds crazy? It does. But this is how we have chosen to run our email.

Some time ago, a number of privacy organizations, joined by an entirely disinterested and objective company called Microsoft, alerted the world to Gmail's practices. However, way back in 2004, Tim O'Reilly noted that in essence "everybody does it."

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.

O'Reilly has a valid point here. I have email accounts with a variety of vendors, and they all have a "junk" folder and have a way to magically place junk in that junk folder. Why am I not calling Congress to complain that my email provider is putting stuff in a junk folder?

A subsequent point that O'Reilly made - to be fair, back before we all had Facebook and Foursquare on our mobile phones - is weaker:

The amount of personal data already collected by credit agencies and direct marketers dwarfs what might be gleaned from email.

However, credit agencies only know what you have already purchased. Other tools, as illustrated in my tymshft post, show what you MAY purchase.

But even O'Reilly had some concerns.

The big question to me isn't privacy, or control over software APIs, it's who will own the data. What's critical is that gmail makes a commitment to data migration capabilities, so the service isn't a one way door to the future. I want to be able to switch to alternate providers if the competition makes a better offer. The critical enabler is going to be the ability to extract my data and connections so that I can work with them on multiple devices, for example, syncing my laptop or phone with my gmail account rather than having to work only in a tethered fashion.

In reality, O'Reilly asked two different questions. The question of whether I can get to my data (and Google has certainly made positive commitments in this area) is a distinctly different question from "who will own the data."

But back to the original question. Let's say that you don't want advertisements in your mail, and that you don't want a bot making the decision regarding whether a piece of mail is "junk" or not. There is a service that allows you to do this, and it will keep all of the Silicon Valley engineers out of your mail. For details on this service, available throughout the United States, visit
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