Late last week, Google set off the most recent of America’s periodic online-privacy freak-outs. The proximate cause? Any Gmail user who was signed up to Google Plus, the company announced, could now email any other Gmail user who was signed up to Google Plus—even if the sender did not know the recipient’s email address.
Though the feature comes with opt-out provisions, along with several caveats (you can send a message to that other user, but you don’t actually get to see the person’s actual email address), the protests were swift. Critics, according to The New York Times, believed that the new feature “opened the door to spam and unwanted solicitations in personal email inboxes, which are considered private.” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told the LA Times that this new feature is “eerily similar to the Buzz fiasco,” referring to the social network Google launched in early 2010 and shut down in late 2011 over privacy concerns. A reporter for GigaOM called it “a stalking tool” on Twitter. The Verge noted yesterday that a small subset of Gmail “high profile” users (including Google CEO Larry Page) would not be automatically opted-in to the feature, thus pissing off the populace even further.
To understate the case, the Internet is not happy with Google right now. The passionate outrage is fueled by the deeply held belief that, as David Auerbach put it on Slate, Gmail “is home to your private life, and every time Google announces that your private life is now going to have a public face, people feel annoyed and violated.”
Extend that parallel further, though, and it starts to seem silly.
You know what address is really home to your private life? Your home. And, back when the telephone book was a ubiquitous feature in American life—that is, less than a decade ago—anyone who had one could simply look up your street address. Also in the phone book: your telephone number, accessible to any and all. If Google’s feature is a “stalking tool,” then the phone book was a stalker’s kit and trade. Nearly every citizen of your city or town was listed there, along with home address and exact phone number, in easy-to-maneuver alphabetical order. The phone book was delivered directly to every home in the region it covered. In fact, the entire function of the directory was to provide contact information for people who did not give you their contact information. In Philadelphia, where I grew up, one had to pay a fee to be left out of the phone book. Somehow, privacy concerns didn’t shut down production and dissemination of the phone book. Ironically enough, Google’s dominance is what killed the service.
Even if you believe that we’ve become a more stalky society, or that automated messaging means there’s more hassle in having your email out there than in having your phone number listed, fear of email dissemination misses the mark. But a lot of the griping about Google’s change relies on an outdated way of thinking about email as a communication tool.
A CNN headline about Google’s feature—“Google Makes It Easier for Strangers to Email You”—succinctly described the key prospect that horrified many Gmail users: Total strangers can now send you email. In truth, your email address is no longer private information, and hasn’t been for a long time. Total strangers have been sending me (and all of you, I assume) email for years. Before advanced spam filters, inboxes overflowed with unsolicited notes. Nowadays, such emails are tucked out sight, but they’re still there. I receive dozens of emails a day from people I have never met and will never meet, most of them wanting something from me, whether it’s my time, money, or ironically enough, someone else’s contact information. If there is a person out there who has managed to limit their inbox’s contents to close notes from dear friends, please make yourself known (privately, of course).
In fact, over the past decade—and especially over the past five years—as email addresses became valuable marketing tools for retail outlets, political campaigns, and charities, the email address field also became a necessity for any organization wishing to keep you within its reach. To use nearly any online feature, one needs a valid, working email address. We don’t necessarily want to provide the address, but to function in the digital community, we must. Our email addresses, therefore, are on hundreds, if not thousands of lists. And every day, bundles containing thousands of those email addresses are sold from one corporation to another. Friends pass those email addresses around like candy on Halloween. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter have my email, along with about a hundred retailers, all of my friends, a good number of my friends’ friends, long-lost colleagues, desperate freelancers, what feels like a million “web services,” my gym, all of my insurance companies, a few people who I know I know but cannot place, and alas, my university’s alumni fund-raising association.
The notion that your Gmail inbox is a cozy, friends-only club crucially misunderstands how pervasive the use of email has become in our daily lives. Email addresses are no longer just contact points, they’re commodities. We don’t just provide them to our intimate correspondents, we blithely offer them up to nearly anyone who asks. Our inboxes aren’t the digital version of a ribbon-tied stack of envelopes, they’re billboard-covered highways we have to navigate to get anywhere we want to go.
It’s annoying, yes, for Google to “suggest” new correspondents to me (I typically make a point of acquiring an email address if I want or need it). It’s annoying, yes, that this feature will amount to a spam-delivery mechanism. And it’s annoying, yes, that Google is acting as if they’re merely being helpful by providing this feature. But does Google’s new feature really change a damn thing? Not at all.
Hillary Kelly is the Digital Media Editor at The New Republic. Her email address can be easily found on the Internet.