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Gmail: a first look

Google's new Web mail service is free and provides a gigabyte of storage, but also raises privacy concerns. We put the beta version through its paces.

Google's yet-to-launch Gmail is, arguably, already as well-known as free email stalwarts such as Microsoft's Hotmail. In part, this is due to the high expectations generally placed on anything from the Google stable. But the debate over privacy issues surrounding the advertising-driven business model that Gmail will use, when it launches, is also a factor.

Google has not yet set a date for the widespread availability of Gmail (this still appears to be several months away), but it has offered 1,000 trial accounts, and ZDNet has had a good look at the beta version. When it does launch, Gmail is certain to see a deluge of users signing up. Those who worry about the privacy issues will probably ignore it, but many will find that its features and convenience outweigh any security concerns.

What do you get with Gmail?
First of course, there is 1GB of space. This is significantly more than most other free email accounts, and also puts many corporate email allocations to shame. Google plans to subsidise the cost of all this space through advertising -- in the terms and conditions, you have to agree to Google serving targeted adverts. In place of banner ads or pop-ups, you get the familiar text-only Google ads ranged down the right-hand side of the window containing the email; they are not intrusive, and the ads only appear in your Gmail window -- they are not attached to emails that you send out. Below the ads come a couple of related links from Google’s search engine, picked according to the subject matter of the email. Google says that emails are scanned automatically, and that no personal information that could link subject matter to a name will be divulged to any advertiser. One issue that's raised by having 1GB of email is: how do you manage your emails and find those that are stored? Predictably, Gmail is search-based. It is also heavily thread-orientated and uses labels to classify threads, which Gmail calls 'discussions'. These are the three central themes of the service.

 


The inbox view, showing emails and threads, which are called 'discussions' in Gmail parlance. Labels, where assigned, are shown next to the subject.


Threading becomes apparent within your first few emails; instead of displaying every email by default, Gmail’s inbox view simply displays the first message of each thread, or discussion. Organisation is aided by labels. You can define as many labels as you wish, and Gmail has four types set up by default: Inbox, Starred (a simple highlighting device), Spam and Trash. Unlike folders, labels can overlap, meaning that mailing list items in your inbox from, say, Politechbot.org, can be labelled 'Politechbot', and all those concerning privacy could be labelled 'privacy'. You can then choose to display only Politechbot emails or only emails regarding privacy issues, but some emails will appear in both views. It’s a simple Boolean ‘OR’ function, and currently there's no way to apply other Boolean logic to the views. For instance, you cannot exclusively select those emails that are labelled both ‘Politechbot’ and ‘Privacy’ (‘AND’) or just those that are labelled ‘Politechbot’ but not ‘Privacy’ (‘NOT’), and so on.

 


User-defined labels are used instead of folders for organising emails and discussions. An email can be assigned any number of labels.


For finding emails, you'll probably rely heavily on Google’s search engine, which is typically and necessarily thorough. By default, it operates on content, subject and email addresses. Search options allow you to search any of these fields exclusively, identify which (if not all) labels should be searched, search for conversations that do not contain a particular word (again in a particular label if you like), and specify whether the search should be performed only on those discussions that have attachments. A useful date feature lets you search only those emails that arrived on a particular date or within a range of days, weeks or months from that date. Instead of displaying every matching email at the end of a search, Gmail displays the threads; you have to click on one to see the whole thread with matching words highlighted.

 


Search is used for finding old emails; the advanced search is particularly useful.


Alongside Search is the Filter option. This contains many of the same choices, allowing you to filter incoming emails by email address, subject, words either contained or missing in the content, and by whether they have attachments. For each filter, you can specify whether an email should skip the inbox and go straight to the archive, get a particular label assigned to it, or go straight to trash.

 


Users can create any number of filters to organise email as it arrives.


Archiving is a term that simply means an email (or discussion) ceases to show up in the inbox. It will still be included by default in searches, but that appears to be the only way to reach it -- there's no option to view the archive in Gmail. Beyond archiving, you can send emails and discussion to the Trash folder/label (which you can view). The only way to delete email forever (at least as far as the user is concerned -- Google specifically states in its terms that it will not guarantee that the data that makes up the email is ever actually wiped from its servers) is from the Trash folder. This, presumably, is Google putting weight behind its claim that Gmail users will never have to delete email again. Google has obviously paid a great deal of attention to the interface. Changing a search option has a corresponding effect on the discussions that are returned, but there is no apparent whole page refresh; only the list of returned discussions refreshes. It’s very slick in practice.

 


Emails are organised as discussions. Performing a search returns the entire discussion, which can then be browsed. The text-only adverts are shown down the right-hand side of this view.


Another nod to usability is contained in the keyboard shortcuts. These are turned off by default, but when turned on allow you to navigate between discussions, through emails within discussions, and perform most other essential functions without touching a mouse.

 


The mail settings window has only very basic options, such as switching on keyboard shortcuts (which are set to off by default).


Google has taken a characteristically simple approach with Gmail, which means, for instance, that there's no POP3 or SMTP access: you have to use Google’s Web interface. Also, the shortest username that Gmail will accept is six characters, which some people are bound to care about. In its terms and conditions, the company says the service can only be employed for personal use, but it's likely to find favour among many professionals at least as a backup email service, or as somewhere to forward all those emails with big attachments that eat up their miserly corporate space allocations.

Terms and conditions
Gmail’s terms of use are, for the most part, pretty straightforward. Because the service is free, it's provided ‘as is’ -- Google can close it without notice at any time and without any liability. Also, Google says it will close any account that's not logged into for 90 days. There is the clause regarding emails remaining in the system once they have been deleted -- but anyone who seriously believes that deleting emails in any system removes all trace should probably surrender their PC now.

The really contentious part of the terms and conditions relates to adverts. Here, you agree that Google will serve ads relevant to the content of your email using a completely automated process. Nobody will read your email. However, Google has given itself a get-out by stating that no human will read the content of your email in order to target such advertisements or other information without your consent (our emphasis).

What does this mean? We don’t know. We have seen companies offering spam-filtering services in the past that use people to read corporate emails, but this is not an easy game to play. Even with the highest vetting procedures, you still never really know exactly who is reading your email, and just what their motivation is for being there. If you don’t want anybody to read your Gmails, just say no. And if you don’t want a machine to read your emails, go elsewhere or use encryption.

. Google states in its terms that it welcomes feedback, and that the privacy policy may change before the service goes live. However, the company is unlikely to change the ad-placement policy unless it meets some unmovable obstacle in the form of legislative bodies. So far, that has not happened. In the UK, an initial complaint from Privacy International about Gmail was struck down earlier this month by Britain's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), partly on the grounds that under EU law, an Internet service is considered lawful as long as it explicitly spells out how the user's details will be handled in the terms of service. The Information Commissioner’s view is that as long as Google is clear and transparent, there is no data protection issue. However Privacy International’s point is that because consent for emails to be read can only be given by an account holder, those who send email to a Gmail customer will have no opportunity to consent to having their email read for keywords.

So what, exactly, does the privacy policy say?

Google says:

  • 'We collect limited account information and store and maintain your account and email messages on our secure servers.'
  • 'We will never rent, sell or share information that personally identifies you for marketing purposes without your express permission.'
  • 'No human reads your email to target ads or related information to you without your consent.'

The information that Google collects includes basic personal information for the account, such as first and last names, a backup email address and a 'secret question' (together with an answer) in case you forget your password. And what about when you click on an advert attached to your email? Google says that a referring URL is sent to the advertiser’s site identifying that you are visiting from Gmail, but that it does not send personally identifying information to advertisers with the referring URL. Those who care deeply about the privacy of their emails will find reason not to use this service -- but then, those individuals should arguably be encrypting all their email anyway. For the rest of us, the adverts will either be ignored or provide an interesting diversion.