Privacy’s Memory Lane: From Furor to Fail in Eight Years

BritneyPrivacy groups put much of their effort into attacking new technologies for a reason.  They’re afraid that, once we see a technology in action, we won’t be scared by its hypothetical risks, while its benefits will be easier to assess. Once that happens, imposing new privacy laws gets a lot harder.

To see just how fast that cycle can run, let’s take a trip down privacy’s memory lane.

In 2004, when Britney Spears was topping the charts with “Toxic,” Google introduced a free, ad-supported email system called Gmail. Thirty-one privacy groups immediately demanded that the service be suspended. California State Senator Liz Figueroa introduced a bill to hobble the service by requiring that both sender and recipient consent to scanning of messages for ads.  And EPIC offered the following advice, still posted in a lonely corner of its website:

 Don’t send e-mails to @gmail.com addresses

Remember, since Gmail is scanning and extracting incoming e-mails as well, even if you aren’t a Gmail user, your privacy may still be violated by Gmail. To avoid such scanning, keep an eye on the domain of e-mail addresses to which you are you are sending and replying.

If you get an e-mail from a Gmail account and you wish not to reply consider explaining something like this:

Dear Friend,

I have received your e-mail, but due to privacy concerns, I don’t want to send my response to your Gmail account. Please give me another e-mail address where I can reach you. If you don’t have another e-mail address, consider the following free e-mail accounts with generous storage which do not pose the same privacy risks:

For more information on the privacy risks posed by Gmail, see http://www.epic.org/privacy/gmail/faq.html.

Sincerely,

Concerned Citizen

On the whole, I’d say that, for all her travails, Britney is holding up a lot better than EPIC’s advice.

Gmail now has 425 million subscribers, making it the largest webmail service in the world. Half the links touted by EPIC, in contrast, resolve to domain-recycling shops. Sen. Figueroa’s legislation died, and she has left the Senate for the California unemployment appeals board.

The point is not that privacy groups have a hair-trigger for “creepiness” claims, though they do. The point is that EPIC’s musty language felt entirely plausible just eight years ago. If the privacy groups had succeeded and Sen. Figueroa’s legislation had passed, we’d still be waiting for the regulations to be finished and the first appellate decisions to be handed down. Webmail providers would still be struggling with fears of legal liability, and 425 million consumers would have fewer choices.

All to protect us from a privacy scare that’s already as dated as disco.

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