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April 23, 2004
CFP: Gmail v. Corporate Mail
An interesting issue has come up in the Gmail and privacy session @ CFP. If you send an email to someone at a corporation, e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org, there is an implicit understanding amongst most people that Microsoft could scan the email and read its contents. After all, Microsoft has a number of trade secrets to protect (as well as other interests) and since you are sending the email to one of its employees, it presumptively has the right to check it to make sure it isn't causing the corporation any harm. At the very least, it could argue that since the mail has been sent to its comptuer servers, it has a right to look at it if it wants.
So what about Gmail? Shouldn't people have the same low expectations of privacy if they send email to someone using a gmail.com email address? After all, the email is residing on Gmail's servers and there's no illusion that the email is residing on a private server.
The difference, I think, is one of perceived control and ownership. When I send email to microsoft.com, I understand that Microsoft has a right to police its email and servers because the person you are sending the mail to is an employee there -- someone who Microsoft has control and supervision over while they are at work.
With Gmail, however, Google doesn't have any control or supervision over its users. At least, that's our current perception. In return for seeing ads, users get a Gig of storage. That's the relationship. Google doesn't try to tell the user what to use to account for or try to control their behavior or supervise it. Therefore, when I send email to someone at a Gmail account, I assume the user is in control of the privacy of that email, not Google.
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