Nothing in life is free ..

Today I want to talk about a pet peeve: personal privacy and email services.  I’m a techie, computer geek or nerd if you prefer, and this issue is finally making its way into the US legal system. You don’t get something for free.  There is always a trade-off or catch.  When a sale is offered by a store, I know it is:

  • To get me, the customer, in the door to purchase additional items
  • Or there could be a surplus inventory of something that must be sold

When I regularly shop in the same grocery store I may sign up for a shopper loyalty card.  I use the card at the register and in exchange I get:

  • Special sale prices & coupons
  • Free items, like a turkey at Thanksgiving
  • Points I can redeem for a discount on gas at the gas pump

If this is an exchange, what does the store get?  By tracking my purchases to give me special deals, I give them the majority of my food business.  I give up a little privacy, information about what I purchase, in exchange for special pricing and deals.  The store gets a loyal customer, and it stays profitable and in business.

What does this have to do with free email services?  There are many email providers, ones that give us the ability to electronically mail each other; the equivalent of sending a letter from myself to my sister.   Email accounts are frequently included as part of your internet service (subscription) from companies like Verizon, Comcast or NetZero.  Not everyone pays for internet service, so they may utilize email services from other companies.  When you switch service providers you lose your old email address, which is a hassle.  Instead of utilizing the email service provided by your new internet provider many opt for a free email service.  The best known providers of these free services are GMAIL (Google) or YMAIL (Yahoo), but there are many others.  What are you trading or giving up for this free email service?

The simple answer is your privacy.  Anything and everything you place in an email that you send from any of these free services or is received by someone using one of these free services is subject to: reading, categorization, classification and sale to any business or advertiser willing to pay for it, no matter how personal the information.

“Say it ain’t so Joe”.  We’re all familiar with this quotation, posed by a young child to Shoeless Joe Jackson, but am I sure?  Yes I am.  Google has said it many times, and even uses it as a defense in court!  The following are from different news sources, but none have grabbed the headlines, or attention, I believe the issue deserves.

If you pay for an email service, your communications are private and you have some level of privacy (see #3).  The question the courts are wrestling with is: what privacy do you have if you use a free email service?

  1. Is it similar to a letter sent by snail mail where only the sender and receiver are privy to the contents?
  2. Is there no expectation of privacy as Google claims?
  3. What expectations do you have in a mix-n-match situation (sent from paid to free, or vice versa)

Right now these free services believe definition #2 always applies and you have no privacy, and no expectation of privacy.  These service providers maintain that everything you do on the internet can be sold, because after all, that is how they earn money (and lofty stock market valuations), by selling everything you search, read, send or post on the internet!

What can you do?  Educate yourself!  Vote with your feet and speak out to Congress and other sources!  Our next post will look at some alternatives.

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