April 22, 2004, 3:54 PM PT
Blasting Gmail as a horrific intrusion into Internet users' privacy, a California state senator has introduced legislation to block Google's free e-mail service.
State Sen. Liz Figueroa, a Democrat from the Bay Area city of Fremont, said Thursday that it should be illegal for a company to scan the text of its customers' e-mail correspondence and display relevant advertising—even if customers explicitly agree to the practice in exchange for a gigabyte of storage.
"Telling people that their most intimate and private e-mail thoughts to doctors, friends, lovers and family members are just another direct-marketing commodity isn't the way to promote e-commerce," Figueroa said in a statement, which called Gmail customers' correspondence "a direct-marketing opportunity for Google."
Google has encountered unexpectedly severe criticism from advocates of more government regulation to control private companies' business practices. London-based Privacy International has fired off complaints to government officials in at least 16 nations. Meanwhile, a coalition of proregulatory privacy groups wrote a letter to Google, saying it "must" abandon plans to introduce Gmail in its current form. Less regulatory groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, did not sign that letter.
Figueroa's bill says an e-mail or instant-messaging provider can scan outgoing messages from its users, but not incoming ones. It includes a narrow exception for spam and virus filtering.
A Google representative said the company is reviewing the legislation and did not have an immediate response.
Figueroa's proposal would do far more than merely block the forthcoming Gmail service, which is not yet available to the public.
Her broadly written bill says no e-mail or IM provider may "review, examine or otherwise evaluate the content of incoming e-mail or instant message" originating from outside the system without the explicit permission of all outside correspondents, a difficult requirement to meet in practice.
That would make it illegal for a California technology company to offer a "family friendly" e-mail service that discards messages with sexually explicit jokes, for instance. It would also prohibit reviewing incoming messages to make clickable hyperlinks out of text phrases like "www.news.com."
"It's OK to read people's e-mail, if you're trying to fight spam, but it's not OK if you want to show them ads," said Sonia Arrison, director of technology policy at the free-market Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. "It's not about privacy. It's about hating corporate America."
Figueroa's office acknowledged that there were problems with the bill but predicted that they could be resolved during negotiations in the legislature. A hearing is scheduled before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 4.