Free online services like Google can come with a privacy cost
The proposed class-action lawsuit filed on Thursday against Google in B.C. Supreme Court is only the latest salvo in a continuing war that is pitting online consumers against the giant companies that profit from users’ personal information.
Earlier this year, a B.C. woman launched a court action against Facebook for using her name and photo on that social network site’s “sponsored stories” — ads that show up on friends’ Facebook pages when she hit the “like” button’ for a product or service.
It wasn’t the first case against Facebook by users incensed at how the networking giant was using their information. And Google already faces a lawsuit in California similar to the action taken in B.C. over data mining of its users’ information.
At the heart of these court fights is the business models of Google, Facebook and other Internet companies that offer consumers a host of so-called free services.
They are essentially advertising companies, for whom data-mining is their stock-in-trade. Their customers turn over mountains of personal data in exchange for receiving a service — whether it’s the ability to email friends, post photos, or keep a calendar.
“On the one hand, you can look at it from the point of an ongoing debate among users against companies,” said Peter Chow-White, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University.
“There is a certain agreement among users: We’ll give up our data if you give us these free services — although it’s not really free …”
What sets the B.C. case apart from previous lawsuits is that the complainant isn’t a Gmail user, but rather a correspondent who, by emailing a Gmail user, had his information subjected to data-mining.
“This case shows that even if you don’t participate, your information is still at risk. It can still be mined by Google or other information companies,” said Chow-White. “In terms of information, it’s like the Wild West.”
Gmail had 435 million active users worldwide as of last June, according to Google. That compares with 350 million people who use Hotmail — which Microsoft plans to replace with Outlook.com — and 300 million who use Yahoo Mail.
Google has lots of company in the data-mining business. Just last month in Japan, Yahoo received the go-ahead for its content-based advertising email technology (similar to Gmail) that mines messages to present ads relevant to the user. For example, if a user is emailing all her friends to announce a pregnancy, receivers can expect to see accompanying ads for everything from maternity clothes to bassinets.