Three sides to every Scroogled: Microsoft's, Google's, and the truth

Three sides to every Scroogled: Microsoft's, Google's, and the truth

Summary: Microsoft is gunning for Google with their new "Scroogled" campaign, but what does Google actually do with your emails? (Hint: Not exactly what Microsoft claims.) Also, I show you how to opt out of email-driven ads in Gmail.

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TOPICS: Google, Microsoft
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Microsoft, via their new "Scroogled" campaign, has just put Google on blast for their practice of scanning through every word of every email so as to target ads to Gmail users. The problem with this campaign of Microsoft's is the manner in which they're portraying Google's handling of Gmail emails. If you've yet to see it, then take a quick look at the Scroogled video, where Microsoft ultimately offers their Outlook services in lieu of Gmail:

The agency Microsoft hired for this campaign did a great job of planting mental images of employees at Google actually reading through emails, and it seems as though that's the single thread Microsoft hopes to hang on to here to gain traction and (surprise, surprise) make money.

What -- you didn't think Microsoft actually cared about the ethical points they raise in the campaign, did you? More on this in a bit.

You see, Microsoft knows that the average user doesn't have a clue about crawling, algorithms, or anything else that's of a remotely technical nature. As such, Microsoft's able to present this whole thing as Google nefariously reading every single word of every single email, including emails non-Gmail users send to Gmail users.

So, what's the truth? Does Google really "read" every single Gmail email? No.

Google has algorithms baked into their services, like Gmail, that scan through words, then make decisions to tailor ads based on various factors that may or may not include the words they've scanned. In other words, the only thing in Google that's "reading" your emails is the very same type of thing that "reads" your emails to identify spam (Care to venture who else identifies spam by checking the contents of your emails?), or to properly handle send/receive requests, etc. It's a process; an algorithm.

There's not a physical body sitting there reading through the countless emails that find their way through Gmail's servers. The algorithm doesn't care about the context of the words, outside of to tailor ads. Where that's concerned, Microsoft was eager to make the point that Google incorrectly tailored an ad in an insensitive manner with a Gmail user whose cat died.

Logical fallacies abound in that example of theirs (maybe that Gmail user has other pets or will be looking to get a new pet, and that coupon is something they can actually use), but since Microsoft's primary point was Google being insensitive and getting it "wrong" with their ad, I wonder what ads Bing might show me for searching for something like "my dad died." Your mileage may very, but here's what I got:

Credit: Bing, ZDNet
Credit: Bing, ZDNet

Oh, yeah, that's fantastic, Microsoft. My dad died, so I want to write him some poems and then see amazing deals on Yahoo Shopping. Good point you made about Gmail and the cat, though. Seems legit.

I'm just being facetious there, but the example above goes to show the point that Microsoft is capable of being equally as "insensitive" in their targeting. Personally, I understand that search/ad algorithms are far from perfect on any platform, but Microsoft seems to want people to believe that Google is somehow intentionally insensitive with their ad targeting while they're stripping your emails of every morsel of privacy they can.

That's just not the case, though I'm not so disillusioned as to believe Google's privacy measures are by any means perfect or 100% transparent. There was the case of Google firing a couple of employees back in 2010 for reading emails and chat logs of Gmail users, but that could have realistically happened anywhere.

Back to the Scroogled video, Microsoft makes mention that you cannot opt out of Google "reading" all of your emails. That's not true, as evidenced by this YouTube video posted in 2011 by Google Business that clearly shows the ability to opt out. For those of you who are interested in doing so, here's how to opt out of email-based ad tailoring in Gmail: (Update: It appears that opting out of ads in Google via the method below does not opt you out of Google's contextual ads -- the ads Microsoft is pointing out in their campaign; however, if you view Gmail via the basic HTML view, you will not be shown ads in Gmail. From Google: "If you do opt-out, you may still see contextual ads based on the message you are reading as well as other relevant ads. If you don't want to see ads in Gmail, you can choose to use Gmail’s basic HTML view, or POP1 or IMAP.")

1: Visit this link, then sign in: https://www.google.com/settings/ads/preferences?hl=en

2: Click "Opt out" on the left-hand side

3: Click the "Opt out" button

Credit: Google, ZDNet
Credit: Google, ZDNet

Alternately, Google allows you to freely set up your Gmail account with third-party email clients, so you can avoid ads altogether if you so choose!

So, what's the truth behind the Scroogle? Well, Microsoft's side is that Google doesn't care about your privacy, so you should instead use Outlook because Microsoft won't serve you ads based on the content of your email. Google's side is that they champion the privacy of their users and they're creating a better ad experience, though you can opt out of email-based ad tailoring if you so choose. But the truth is that Google is currently making bucketloads of cash, and Microsoft wants a slice of that pie. Either way, you and I simply boil down to dollar signs. Microsoft wants to be the ones who advertise to you, not Google.

Also, privacy is a hot button topic, so Microsoft went for it. It's incredibly easy to get people to feel like they're violated on the Internet these days, but in this case, the truth is that an ad-tailoring email algorithm simply doesn't care about the things most would define as an actual invasion of their privacy. I've had a stranger dig through an email account of mine before, and trust me when I say that this isn't even remotely close to that sort of genuinely infuriating invasion of privacy. But that's just an opinion forged from personal experience.

Whatever you feel Google (or Microsoft, or any other email provider, for that matter) might be doing with email data behind the scenes is your call. As for me, I remain a content Gmail user, still puzzled by the fact that email ads even really work, since I never, ever see them. Ever. They're there! But I just don't see them. Kind of like Google and the contents of my emails. *wink*

What are your thoughts? Do you think Google is crossing a line by tailoring email ads? And what of Microsoft's goal with this campaign? Do you think they really care about the privacy of Gmail users, or do you agree with me that they're just shooting for fatter pockets? Get busy in the comments below!

Topics: Google, Microsoft

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118 comments
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  • I know where is the problem

    I know where is the problem: Microsoft is just crying :)
    anywherehome
    • Cannot handle the fact Google being a creep, can you?

      Anyone uses internet long enough knows Google acts like a creep. Look at the way they ask you for cell phone # or real name when using their services. It gives you an option to skip it but the skip link is presented in an obscured manner while the request of phone# and real identity is presented at the front and center, which easily lures users in if they simply mis-click it. Google is showing every sign of a creep, and the sorrow apologists here are in serious denial.
      LBiege
      • Everyone's a creep

        Have you tried to create a new Windows 8 account recently? They ask for similar information and similarly discourage opting out. Google may be creepy at times, but it's not like Microsoft has any room to talk.
        AdamDollar
      • "Google being a creep"? Did you see the ad?

        M$ set out to suggest that human beings are reading your personal mail. If you don't think that's a creepy misrepresentation, then you obviously crept right up M$'s a**.
        Heenan73
        • The Opportunity Is There

          Google employees can and have gleaned customers e-mails. Some the employees have been caught and punished.
          GardenMaster
          • Where is it not?

            Microsoft are not using end-to-end encryption, so obviously they can read your mail too.
            Natanael_L
      • caveat emptor

        The internet is For profit! Therefore expect evereything to be mined.
        If you forget that, you're naïve.
        FATCAT23
      • Facebook also asks for your real name.

        Facebook also asks for your real name. I like the idea of holding someone liable for what they say. In real real life, one is responsible for what they say. It keeps them honest like in real life.
        Tim Jordan
        • It hasn't really been shown to work that way.

          It hasn't really been shown to work that way. Real name or not, trolls are trolls. I still have to block people on occasion even when they're using their real name.
          CobraA1
        • Yeah right, I know several people with fake FB names as they don't check up

          on them worth a damn.
          Deadly Ernest
          • I forgot to add, the only reason FB started asking for real names

            is they got pinged by the courts etc for letting people create fake FB accounts under someone else's name, and that still happens anyway.
            Deadly Ernest
    • Google does record your hyperlinks

      Aside from cataloging your google searches specifically to you if you're logged into any of their services when you do the search, they also catalog your following of any hyperlinks in your Gmail - have a look - they scan the email for hyperlinks and replace them with a redirect page so they can record your having clicked the hyperlink before redirecting you to where you thought you were going

      I use Gmail but access it very rarely via the web interface to avoid these things
      archangel9999
  • How's it being an apologist for Google?

    Please tell me how many techies on this forum know how to opt out of the email ads shown by Google, forget about laymen? The language on Optout is camouflaged in a way that Google can continue to serve ads or scan mails even after you opt out. Nobody knows what is the additional information Google is referring to. They do state they would continue serving relevant ads even after we opt out. Right or wrong is for users to decide if they are OK, with Google scanning their mails. MS just created some awareness about it. What is your problem?
    mm71
    • really?

      M$ didn't create awareness... they created FUD... FEAR in that people now think there are Google employees reading their emails... this isn't awareness... its's FUD... do you actually believe what you are saying or are you so stuck up M$'s butt that you are rationalizing this mudslinging as taking the high ground.. i pity you
      ukjb
      • All MS knows is FUD

        That's how they got their position. Spread FUD and say "We have the solution".

        Luckilly people are slowly wising up ti MS's BS.
        itguy10
        • MS and...

          Every company has some sort of FUD machine built in. Like Google's "Don't Be Evil" line: it makes the implication that others are evil, and Google is not.
          They're really no different.
          jetsethi
          • Anyone can form an implication even if one is not intended.

            Would you say that, as a rule, you try not to be an idiot? Does that imply that other people are idiots? Are you typically honest? So everyone else is dishonest?

            "Like Google's "Don't Be Evil" line: it makes the implication that others are evil, and Google is not."

            You are really stretching it to equate this to the MS ad being discussed... So much so that you fail to see the irony that what MS did makes the implication that MS is evil not Google's motto.
            techadmin.cc@...
        • wrong, Microsoft also know how to steal code and to tie things

          up in court for ages and how to intimdate people into doing things their way, like any other large predator.
          Deadly Ernest
      • Nobodyis saying Google employees read your emai.

        They are saying that Google data mining AI COMPUTERS are reading your email and storing both the messages and the results of their algorithms for the purpose of monetizing that data.
        rp518
        • Wrong!

          Did you see the video at the top? Why does the MS ad super impose the picture of a persons eyes getting wider when they emphasize "every word, every e-mail". It's a pretty clear attempt to convey that people are reading the ads.
          brad@...