April 24, 2004 | By Donna Wentworth

The Gmail Bill: A Bad Idea Becomes Even Worse Legislation

CNET's Declan McCullagh this week picked apart the misguided Gmail bill (PDF) introduced before the California legislature by State Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Freemont). The upshot? The bill is so broadly written, it would do things like "make it illegal for a California technology company to offer a 'family friendly' email service that discards messages with sexually explicit jokes," and "prohibit reviewing incoming messages to make clickable hyperlinks out of text phrases like 'www.news.com.'" And those are only two examples.

EFF Board Chairman Brad Templeton, meanwhile, offered his observations about the situation, concluding (in part) that:

1.) Privacy advocates shouldn't be lobbying for new legislation to ban Gmail, but rather, to build a better ECPA -- one that recognizes the privacy perils of today's technology (for example, a gigabyte of storage under the control of a third party + email converging w/other services + personally identifying information correlated w/search, etc., etc.) ;
2.) Google and other Webmail providers should address privacy concerns by offering automatic encryption for stored email; and
3.) Technology developers like Google should consider the effects on personal freedom of the "creepiness" factor -- that is, that freedom can be constrained if you feel like you're being watched (even if the watcher is a computer).

Gmail had a session unto itself @ CFP, and Wired reports that Google Senior Compliance Counsel Nicole Wong appeared responsive to the idea of separating Google cookies but said automatic email encryption would be a significant investment, and that the company is focusing first on adding features already in the pipeline.

Senator Figueroa's technology counsel, David Link, evidently didn't fare as well with the CFP crowd. When asked why it's OK for businesses to read emails sent to their employees, but not OK for Google's computers to put ads in emails sent to its subscribers, Link had no ready answer. Instead, he offered the typical conference rejoinder: "That's a good question."

He'll get a lot more of those.


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