Gmail likely to clear privacy hurdles

The UK's data protection authorities seem to be smiling on Google's plan to offer Web users a gigabyte of email storage in return for targeted adverts

Google's forthcoming email service probably won't run into legal issues in Britain, as long as the company doesn't deceive customers about how their personal information will be treated.

Privacy advocates are unhappy that Google is planning to scan emails and add adverts that it thinks are relevant to the context of the message. Last week, Privacy International urged the UK Information Commissioner to take action against the service.

But the word from the Commissioner's office on Tuesday is that if Google is upfront about its plans it should have no problem offering the service in the UK.

"As long as it's transparent to people when they sign up that Google is monitoring their email usage and passing that information on for marketing purposes, then they probably wouldn't be breaking any legislation," said a spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner's Office. "Until Gmail's up and running, though, we can't be certain."

The Information Commissioner's Office had previously declined to comment on Privacy International's complaint. It is understood that Google was surprised by this complaint, given that Gmail is still in its trial phase.

Google has also been attacked for saying that copies of emails could be retained within Gmail even after a user has deletes them. This, though, is unlikely to raise the ire of the authorities as they recognise that it's often very difficult to truly delete data.

"Internet service providers are already dealing with the issue that copies of emails remain inside their systems after a user has tried to delete them," said the Information Commissioner's spokeswoman.

Gmail has had a less cordial reception in other parts of the world, though. A California state senator said on Monday she was drafting legislation to block the service because of Google's plan to place advertising in personal messages.

Google says that it has the "highest regard" for the privacy of its users' information, and insists there is nothing sinister about Gmail.

"The technology that presents users with relevant Gmail advertisements operates in the same way as all popular Webmail features that process email content to provide a user benefit, such as spam filtering or virus detection. These services are widely accepted, trusted, and used by millions everyday," a Google spokesperson said.

"We are confident that Gmail is fully compliant with data protection laws worldwide. We look forward to a detailed dialogue with data protection authorities across Europe to ensure their concerns are heard and resolved."