MEDIA BRANDS: Google defusing Gmail privacy controversy by letting new e-mail offering speak for itself

This column has previously addressed the debate over Gmail, Google's new web-based e-mail service, opining that the soon-to-be public search-engine company had a lot to do when it comes to quelling concerns about privacy.

This column has previously addressed the debate over Gmail, Google's new web-based e-mail service, opining that the soon-to-be public search-engine company had a lot to do when it comes to quelling concerns about privacy.

When Gmail's concept was reported in the press earlier this year, privacy watchdogs lashed out at a key element: the fact that in return for a storage capability that dwarfs other free mail services, computers would scan users' messages in order to target advertisements to them. For once, it seemed Google had made a PR mistake. It's now a few months later, and Google is making amends. Most other companies would've ditched a product so fraught with controversy. And it would be hard to blame them. Privacy, after all, is a hot-button issue that's not prone to reasoned debate. Instead, Google stayed its course, and, with some smart PR, the company that made its name into a verb is finding yet another way to touch consumers. I should know because I'm one of the latest to be touched. Thanks to a friendly blogger, I was recently able to get my hands on a coveted Gmail account. The company is beta-testing the service and passing out subscriptions to a small number of people, including those who use its blogging software. But, in an interesting viral distribution method, those users occasionally get accounts to pass on to others, which is exactly how I got mine. The first thing you notice about Gmail, especially if you read the early press, is precisely what it isn't, namely some privacy-devouring monster that will spread your financial information far and wide. Instead, it's a cleaner, more user-friendly, and - OK, this is really intangible - cooler take on an existing way of doing things on the internet. For anyone whose current web-based account is bursting with spam and attachments, a few minutes with the clean interface and cavernous in-box renders all that early coverage alarmist nonsense. Google executives don't talk publicly about PR - or about anything much, really. Google products speak for themselves, and they get others speaking about them. For instance, the seeding of Gmail accounts in the population has generated buzz. There have been bidding wars for accounts. Journalists and bloggers have written positive reviews, which serve to defuse a lot of the early tensions. For many others, having one has simply become a matter of prestige, of being cool. When I sent out an e-mail alerting friends and family to my new address, I got a variety of replies. Most were run-of-the-mill. But from my media- and tech-savvy friends, I got messages that, because of the scarcity of accounts, were curious, envious, and even a little desperate in their questions about how I got mine - making me feel a bit like a rock star. One of these happened to be from an ex-girlfriend. You just don't expect that kind of satisfaction from an e-mail account.

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