Much of the Gmail-inspired outrage has focused on what happens to email messages sent by non-Gmail subscribers to Gmail subscribers. “If you want to sign up to have Google’s version of SkyNet scan your messages for ads,” some objectors say, “that’s fine, but don’t involuntarily subject me to that scanning just because I send you a message.”
That is, Gmail subscribers themselves may willingly opt-in to whatever onerous TOS Gmail provides, but third party correspondents are afforded no such opportunity, nor should they have to.
This faulty objection springs from the seductively misleading “privacy” of email.
When I send you an email message, that message is out of my control the instant I send it. This is a lesson that has been learned by countless Internet users who accidently include someone they’re mocking on a CC: list, mistakenly send personal correspondence to a mailing list, or send something so outrageous that their friends can’t keep it to themselves and it ends up in the New York Times.
It is this last circumstance that is most relevant to the Gmail debate. The custodianship of email messages you send lies with the recipient. Shared values of (on- and off-line) etiquette, friendship, and sociability usually govern that custodianship acceptably. When I share sensitive personal thoughts with friends, whether via e-mail, phone, or good old face to face conversation, they don’t rebroadcast those thoughts to others. Not because of a legal requirement or a Terms of Service agreement, but because of our friendship. Even handwritten letters (with ink and paper, remember those?) are subject to unauthorized distribution. In a professional context, I choose to whom and how I disclose confidential or sensitive information based on my judgement about the trustworthiness and motivations of the recipient of the information. A non-disclosure or other legal agreement helps, but doesn’t prevent disclosure. It just makes punishing the disclosure easier.
The technology that underlies e-mail doesn’t remove the need for the same kind of social guidelines for how it is used. If I find the computerized scanning of e-mail text to generate context sensitive ads repellent (which I don’t), then I must balance my repulsion with my desire to communicate with firstname.lastname@example.org. It is certainly impractical for me to familiarize myself with the practices of all handlers of all destinations of all email messages I send, but that is not a new problem.
When you send someone an e-mail message, what do you know about the server that it eventually ends up on? Do you trust the administrators of that server? Where do that server’s backups live? Who is the night manager at that off-site storage facility? All of these unknowns certainly affect your privacy as an e-mail author. These mysterious individuals and locations guard your prose. Any one of them could give or sell it to the world.
Encrypting your correspondence doesn’t really buy you much more bulletproof protection. Yes, a PGP encrypted e-mail message gives you some protection against snoopers while the message is in transit and probably guarantees that the first person to read the decrypted message is your chosen recipient. But what happens then? Does the recipient save a plain text copy of the message to his computer? Forward on the decrypted contents to others? The same social necessities and system administration unknowns apply.
So, how to prevent nefarious, rude, encryption-inexperienced, or just plain disagreeable correspondents from making (dare I say it) fair use of your email messages that you don’t like? One way is to cuddle up to the DRM boogeyman. If the Internet has made everyone a publisher, no personal printing press turns out more content than the email client. Individual publishers of email now have something very much in common with the media behemoths that want to squash song sharing. The same technology that is derided for putting restrictive encumbrances on legally acquired PDFs, DVDs, and MP3s could also prevent perceived villains like the Gmail ad-bot from operating on your lovingly crafted email content.
Such a restrictive solution as bad a policy for most email messages as it is for most other digital content. Email authors must realize that they give up control when they send an email. This has always been true, but perhaps the Gmail fuss makes it clearer.
Over and over again, I read and hear that the communication implications of the Internet mean distributed publishing power, grassroots efforts, infinite channels, reduction in centralized control, insert starry-eyed phrase of choice. If true, this applies to everyone, not just large corporations. If we are publishers, we all must give up some control of our creations.
What do you expect of people to whom you send e-mail messages?