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March 17, 2006

No Email is Safe

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Here we go down a very slippery slope. News.com reports right on the heels of Tuesday’s Google/ courts saga the news that a Judge has granted a subpoena brought by the Federal Trade Commission asking Google to turnover the complete contents of one user’s Gmail account, including the deleted messages. This is not good — for Google, for Gmail, for online users everywhere.

The FTC is ‘asking’ for the emails in correlation to a case regarding credit counseling company AmeriDebit. The company was sued by the FTC in 2003 alleging AmeriDebit deceived customers about credit counseling and failed to use customers’ money to pay their creditors. The FTC believes information pertinent to the case can be found in a man named Peter Baker’s Gmail account. Peter Baker is a shareholder for a company linked to the missing money. Baker has (not surprisingly) objected to the subpoena, saying it could disclose confidential information, including attorney-client conversations.

The kicker for most people comes toward the end of this statement:

“All documents concerning all Gmail accounts of Baker…for the period from Jan. 1, 2003, to present, including but not limited to all e-mails and messages stored in all mailboxes, folders, in-boxes, sent items and deleted items, and all links to related Web pages contained in such e-mail messages.”

Deleted messages? Really? Baker estimates he may have ‘tens of thousands’ of e-mail messages in his Gmail account. While Google has been ordered to produce all of the deleted emails, it will be very interesting to see how many they are actually able to recover. Google’s privacy policy says deleted e-mail messages “may remain in our offline backup systems” in perpetuity and does not guarantee that backups are ever deleted. Two things: first, ‘may remain’ – what does that mean? And second, I think it’s time they add ‘…until they’re brought up in court’ to their Delete Forever button.

It seems we are already starting to see the effects of Tuesday’s Google/ DOJ non-decision. Regardless of how many emails the FTC can actually receive from the Google, the idea that the government can go in and demand such information is appalling and a very dangerous thing for online users everywhere. What information will you give Google knowing they may be forced to divulge it at the drop of a hat? If Google loses the trust of its users they could suffer a huge decline in the use of what has become a signature tool for them.

I really detest where all of this going. Having an Internet that is completely controlled by the government, where users will be fearful of entering in search queries or sending emails for fear it will brought against them. Even law-abiding users are likely to be cautious. What happened to an anonymous Internet? What happened to privacy rights in general?

If Google is forced to give the FTC the information it wants, how will that affect online services like Hotmail or Yahoo or AOL? The courts are quickly falling down a very slippery slope. And beyond that, what consequences will this have on the way people conduct their online lives in general. Will bloggers be fearful of writing things that go against the government in fear it will be reference later? Will customers be cautious about the kinds of things they purchase or view online? Are we in some kind of a time warp? It’s a spectacular victory for the United States government and a disgusting display for private citizens everywhere.





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