On April 1, 2004, Google announced its new and capacious Gmail service and said it would serve up contextual ads, a move so radical that people initially thought it was an April Fool’s joke. It wasn’t.
At the time, more than 30 civil liberties groups urged Google to suspend Gmail, arguing that targeting people with ads in their e-mail was setting a dangerous precedent and letting the “proverbial genie out of the bottle” for privacy abuse. California Sen. Liz Figueroa drafted a bill aimed at restricting this use of Gmail (later dropped), privacy groups asked the California Attorney General to investigate whether Google was violating wiretapping laws, and one Google critic created the “Gmail is too creepy” site.
Fast-forward eight years — 425 million Gmail people are using the service, and contextual ads are regularly ignored in e-mails on Yahoo and other free e-mail services. It’s not that people are now apathetic about, for example, seeing a Viagra ad when they are asking someone for a date. It’s that people do not seem to feel threatened by the notion that Google’s all-seeing computers are eyeballing the messages and serving up ads. We see the ads everyday in our e-mails, next to our Web searches, and on the most popular sites — they have become part of the accepted Internet landscape.
“Either we are the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water and we aren’t recognizing that we are being boiled, or we understand we’re trading in some of our privacy for convenience,” said Hanson Hosein, director of the Master of Communication in Digital Media at the University of Washington. “We are well aware of what Google does with this information, but we recognize that we are getting a great service. So far, Google has been relatively benign, so people are thinking either Google will get you or Facebook will get you.”
“Either we are the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water and we aren’t recognizing that we are being boiled, or we understand we’re trading in some of our privacy for convenience.”
–Hanson Hosein, University of Washington
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