Gmail is boiling the frog – and we are the frog

Gmail is boiling the frog – and we are the frog

Summary: Google's steady push to become an intermediary for all of our communications comes at a cost – but do we care anymore about paying it? Judging by the results of the latest ZDNet Great Debate, the answer is... ribbit.


It probably would have compromised my Great Debate argument – that Gmail's increasing sequesterization of itself means it's time to abandon the world's most popular webmail service – had I mentioned that I am also a rabid fan of the service and would, like many of us, struggle to live without it.

And yet, as I considered the arguments of the increasing number of people giving quite well-considered reasons why the platform may have innovated itself into a corner, and how easy it is to switch to, I began weighing up some of the assumptions that I and many others take for granted about Gmail.

Frogs, they say, can't feel subtle temperature changes as the water gets hotter. CC BY-SA 3.0 James Lee

We have forced ourselves to adapt to its conversation-based email conventions, which befuddle novices but become second-nature over time.

We have learned to slow down our keystrokes lest the shortcuts confuse the interface and mute a conversation when we meant to write a reply.

We have learned to deal with email attachments in new ways, and how to handle the cc: and bcc: fields so messages go to the right place.

We have learned to ignore the incessant advertisements, which were originally contained on the right-hand column but have recently begun creeping into our Inbox listings.

We have taught ourselves not to think about just how strange it is that those ads seem tailor-made to solve the issues being discussed in our emails.

We bleat and scream to the hills about the government's invasions of our privacy, then turn around and mail our personal information using a service specifically designed to harvest that information.

Which is, of course, because they are exactly that. Google has sucked millions of people into its web by delivering a feature-packed email service that comes only at the price of our privacy. And, as we continue to enjoy its benefits – and compare them, usually favourably, with the alternatives, we must face the unavoidable reality that we have sold our souls for free email.

Think about it: We bleat and scream to the hills about the government's invasions of our privacy, then turn around and mail our personal information using a service specifically designed to harvest that information.

It may sound a bit histrionic to say that, of course, since we are only talking about email. Aren't we?

Of course we aren't.

As I intimated in my arguments, Google has positioned Gmail as a gateway drug to a world where everything runs according to Google. Google wants to manage our photos, our social media, our email, our word-processing documents, our everyday tasks, even our general documents.

It wants to harvest that information and feed it to the Borg that is far and away the largest single information-filtering service in the world. By continuing to buy into Google's model, we are feeding the centralisation of human knowledge – one email at a time. This is the brave new world of the Internet, where privacy is an historical footnote and we are tricked or simply bribed to give it up.

By and large, we are quite happy to do so. We may not love the need to deliver our personal lives on a platter in exchange for a spam-free, easily-accessible and substantially awesome email experience – but we do so with a smile, over and over again.

As we continue to enjoy Gmail's benefits – and compare them, usually favourably, with the alternatives, we must face the unavoidable reality that we have sold our souls for free email.... Not only can we no longer live without it – but we are beginning to struggle imagining why we would even want to.

I was thus pleasantly surprised to see that, at one point in the debate, I actually crept over the 50 per cent mark in terms of the number of votes cast. Concern over Gmail's rampant intrusions clearly struck a nerve, and has generated real issues with its business model for many on the Internet.

With many tens of thousands of people following the debate and a high level of voting participation, this interim result seemed to me to be far more telling even than the final tally of 34 per cent to Ken's 66 per cent, which I can only attribute to a late campaign that rallied Google employees to vote and tip the scales back in their favour.

What was interesting about this debate, however, is that so many people clearly believe that the unprecedented revelations about privacy this year – the NSA's systematic spying through PRISM, the global culture of snooping and the unspoken mass exchange of our personal information – have tipped the balance enough that Gmail should no longer be used with impunity.

With so many people willing to support the argument that we should abandon a platform that has become so useful to so many people, it is clear that concerns over our true privacy online are starting to outweigh the benefits of selling our digital souls to Google. Edward Snowden's legacy has become an interruptive force that will drive many to consider alternatives where they previously lived in quiet denial.

Where this will lead, I am not sure. Gmail is certainly feature-packed and useful; while some arguments could be made that its interface is becoming overcrowded and over-difficult for new users to get their heads around, on the whole it is a robust and useful service.

Just as most of us continue to drive the same old gas-guzzlers even though we know we'd have a cleaner conscience in a Prius, we continue with Gmail not only because it's free, but because it has made itself indispensable. Not only can we no longer live without it – but we are beginning to struggle imagining why we would even want to.

The frog is well and truly up to its neck in boiling water. And we're it.

Topics: Privacy, Apps, Enterprise Software, Google, Great debate, Google Apps


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • from the boiling pan to the microwave

    The frog is going to get it. Tracking and other marketing driven shenanigans are way over the top and there's little hope of reigning it in as this emanates from the power centers. Get your protective thermal frog suit early. Ribbit.
    • It is almost impossible

      But to be free from google everything, turn off the lights!

      You are the `Android`!
      From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
      Android commonly refers to:
      Android (robot), designed to resemble a human

      The word robot comes from the Czech robotnik, which means "slave." (

      Well with this said, it is obvious that Google knows how to treat and how it sees its consumers, ..., like SLAVES!

      Frogs have more freedom!
      • LOL. Thanks for the laugh.

        I fully understand that if I use Googles FREE services...My information will be used for targeted marketing ads that pertain to my interests. At least they will pertain to me and not totally off the wall.

        How many FB users also accept this kind of membership trade for use...yet do NOT have the expansive number of FREE products/services that Google Provides. How about Google+ circles compared to FB new relaxing security?

        Everyone knows nothing is free( or should know), but you have to agree that Google provides tons more features/products than FB or APPLE does.

        Apple is THE model for a closed ecosystem where you are RESTRICTED to shopping from Apples marketplace where the get 30% of any/all revenue if you own one of their limited line of products. One phone....5 generations...oops 2 phones counting the 5C.

        At least with Google, I do have choices/options on the hardware and the marketplace I can choose from.

        Android phones do not require you to use a google ID to use the device.....Apple mandates an Itunes account/ID.

        At the end of the day....everyone is free to use any device or service they choose.

        Best wishes with your choice.
        • I understand also

          That's why I Bing, which isn't much better, use Yahoo mail, and never ever use android or chrome free or not.
          • Huh?

            You use Microsoft services to protect your privacy???

            Did it ever occur to you to read the Msft TOS?
          • Did your read Microsoft TOS?

            Did you compare them to Google?
        • People SHOULD know lots of things they dont.

          Like for Facebook. It is absolutely ludicrous how many non internet savvy people I talk to, they use Facebook, play online poker, email and even play some online games and do a little online shopping, maybe some banking. They don't have a clue how it is that Facebook or their email is free. They think of it like, well, the bank lets me do my banking through their website for free, I go online and go through online shopping sites, buy stuff and I don't have to pay to go on and look, I go to all kinds of websites and don't pay a dime.

          Most people hardly look at the ads, they get way less attention than TV ads, nobody hardly puts it all together in their mind. Its one of those bizarre but true things. To say everyone knows you get nothing for free is a ridiculous statement. Con men would get nothing if that was close to a fact.

          We can sit around and debate about who has the best features etc. etc., but one thing we can be sure of, Google spies on us with the very best of them.
          • MS spied on you,

            sells and resells your porn preferences even more than Google does. You be certain about that ;-). What is worse Microsoft behaves like a professional hypocrite never admitting this.
            The difference is that Google offers you choices and open standards (in case if you care) You can use those to don't bother with anything. MS never allowed IMAP on hotmail, Google had done it a long time ago.
            All the sobbing about Google's having dumped ActiveSync is as ridiculous as it is fake.
          • Ha. This is a joke right?

            You clowns make me chuckle.

            When it comes to doing something high tech that is good, Google whips MS's arse right?? Every time, MS is nothing but a copy cat theif of Googles best ideas and MS cant ever find a way to do it nearly as well, right?

            But whoa! As soon as it comes to nasty high tech behavior, well that all flips dosnt it. Suddenly, MS is the master of tech. Google just cant match MS's tech savvy once its something nefarious.

            What a complete farce. Who do you guys think your fooling. People who talk this way are jackasses and don't talk sense.

            Google is the online spymaster that nobody holds a candle to.

            You cant sit around complaining that MS robs us of dollars for their OS, and then not recognize that Google on the other hand makes their billions thieving our info and selling it to the highest bidder.

            Those who live in a dreamland where MS is inept in every way compared to Google except when it comes to personal info mining are plain nuts. Their assertions are plainly ludicrous and entirely illogical. Google makes their living off doing it.
          • "MS is the master of tech."

            Which tech would that be? What did Microsoft invent really? A system that cannot catch a malware and needs regular virus scanning and disinfecting after the fact to stay protected? An OS that can't keep up with its all updates, doesn't have a centralized updater/installer yet akin to GNU/Linux or *BSD distros? Requiring a reboot every time an application gets updated? A system that ages with time and gets sluggish and must be reinstalled as the result?

            Technically speaking, think about the MS tastes evolution . Remember how MS derided a shell and cli in general, made fun of headless setups etc? It all changed now. So what kind of master of tech that would be?
            MS is master of patent trolling, FUD and propaganda campaigns, NDA's . This is where MS beats every other one, Apple and Oracle are close second though
          • "… , Google spies on us with the very best of them."

            Including Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo… ..
          • Yessir. They all do it.

            We know as an absolute fact which of the big players makes the vast majority of their billions of the practice.
          • so, why

            are cherry-picking Google only?
          • That is a ver good question, eulampius.

            "Why are you cherry-picking Google only?".

            May I counter with a query of my own: why do you cherry-pick on Microsoft, only?

            Once you answer that, you may arrive at the answer for your own question.
            John Zern
          • Except...

            Actually, Apple doesn't give a damn about your info. They are making money with the hardware they sell. iCloud services are only used to create an ecosystem and create bridges between Apple devices.
        • Your Reply is a Breath of Intelligent Fresh Air in Sea Ignorant Muck

          You must entire the world of Google with your eyes shut if you believe all the anti-Google drivel and the Microsoft Scroogle propaganda. I find that Google is completely open and upfront and have met my expectations. At no time have they violated my privacy any more than any other email service with a good SPAM spoiler.

          Microsoft, on the other hand, has been a cut-throat conniving company from day one. Their business model has always been one of if I can't rip you off, I'll squeeze out my competition so that you have no choice but to let me rip you off.

          Thank you, Google, for providing worthwhile alternative and some successful competition.

          I'll stick with Google until someone proves their are doing something dishonest. I would prefer not to be BLingKED or Outsnookered.
      • you trivialize the horror of 'slave' this way.

        BigTechCo activities cause advertisements to display before me that are relevant to what I'm interested in. I dislike cars, haven't bought one in over a decade, and am much happier paying my mechanic down the street to keep my van&truck in top operating condition than I am in buying a new vehicle with a user facing computer interface that will be either horrible, obsolete or both in five years. (and are horrible now if my opinion counted for anything)

        Thus, I rarely see a car/truck advertisement. How is that a bad thing? Instead, I have adverts for VMWare, and other such things that I'm interested in anyway.

        NB.. If you think YourFavoriteCo isn't spying on you the same way that MyFavoriteCo and the NSA are, you're living in a fantasy world. They all do it, its only a matter of the degree to which they've been caught with the finger in the cookie jar. That data is simply too valuable to think otherwise.
  • NSA front

    Google is the hipster feel good front for the NSA. The creation funded by CIA front money from IN-Q-TEL, Google was designed to supplant all other services. Thereby, funneling and channeling all communications through government data centers for the purpose of data mining and harvesting. They say they are doing this for our safety but in reality, it has more to do with suppression of our Constitutional rights.

    Alternatives to Google are still partnered with the NSA system. Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, etc., are not alternatives. They are part of the entire web. Intel, IBM and others are also integral. When you study the history, information technology was essentially built from the ground up to track, trace and database the population. Don't let the snazzy hand held technology make you think they have good intentions.
    • You need a non-US email provider

      As you said, Jow Blow, Gmail alternatives like Outlook allow the NSA to have a back door to rifle through your information.

      To escape, you probably need to find a secure email service hosted outside the USA. Possibly one of the emerging mobile OSes like Sailfish, Tizen, Ubuntu Mobile or Firefox OS will give the NSA less opportunities to break in.
      • How does the OS protect you?

        The email service and the phone are two different things...