Google is making a change to its advertising practices that will affect millions of Gmail users around the globe. Starting later this year, the company will stop reading your emails to refine its ads.
If you’re just learning that Gmail scans your messages, this is an issue that dates back for years. Google’s automated systems routinely scanned Gmail users’ incoming and outgoing emails to help refine the company’s massive data-gathering operation, which in turn supported its enormous targeted-advertising business.
Google’s ad business is what keeps the entire company chugging along. Last year, 88 percent of all revenue at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, came from Google advertising, according to its annual report.
“This decision brings Gmail ads in line with how we personalize ads for other Google products,” wrote Diane Greene, Google’s senior vice president of Google Cloud.
It’s not clear when the change will officially take place; in a statement to The Washington Post, Google reiterated that it will be this year but declined to offer more specifics.
The history of Google’s email scanning has been a checkered one. Privacy groups and activists have filed lawsuits against the company over the practice, which they allege collected user information without those users’ informed consent. In 2014, Google suspended email scanningfor its educational customers in the wake of one such case, a policy that gradually expanded to cover all of Google’s enterprise customers. In the case, nine plaintiffs — including two Google Apps for Education customers — said Gmail’s scanning practices violated California wiretapping laws, and also reflected broader concerns that student data should not be used for commercial purposes, according to Education Week.
In December, Google tentatively agreed to hold off on scanning incoming mail until after the messages were available in a Gmail user’s inbox, which it argued would help resolve concerns about Google violating state wiretapping laws. That proposal was part of a settlement negotiation that was still ongoing as of March, when a federal judge rejected the proposed settlement in a case involving California privacy law, Matera v. Google. That case is significant because it concerns how Gmail treats emails coming in from other providers, such as Yahoo or Microsoft, whose own customers allegedly have not consented to the Gmail scanning.
In her ruling rejecting the settlement, Judge Lucy Koh said the agreement didn’t go far enough in explaining to consumers how Google was treating their messages.
It’s unclear how Google’s new decision not to scan Gmail messages for advertising purposes altogether may affect that case, but some experts say the move could effectively make the lawsuit moot.
“Certainly ceasing scanning will solve the claims in that case quite easily,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington think tank. “Obviously, the cost of ongoing litigation here and potential risks involved with losing would have to outweigh value that they get through email scanning for ads.”
Google also still scans the content of emails to screen out malware and spam, and could continue scanning messages to help power its Smart Reply feature (which creates robot-generated responses to incoming email that users can select with a click). A Google spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a question regarding Smart Reply.