The company will continue to serve ads in Gmail, which has more than 1.2 billion users, but it will target those ads based on information it has already gathered from other Google services like search or YouTube, instead of the content of email.
“This decision brings Gmail ads in line with how we personalize ads for other Google products,” Diane Greene, Google’s senior vice president in charge of Google Cloud, wrote in the post.
Google introduced Gmail in 2004, and it quickly gained popularity because it offered improved search options and more storage, eliminating the inconvenience of deleting email to stay within capacity limits. Gmail is now the most widely used web email service.
But the service has been criticized by privacy advocates for scanning email to generate contextually aware ads. The ads in email bothered users more than other targeted advertising found across the web, because users are more touchy about the privacy of email versus, for example, browsing history.
“This action was driven by concerns from business users — not regular individuals,” said Seth Schoen, a senior staff technologist from the Electronics Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. “Some of the regular people who use Google services disliked the way their email contents were being used to target ads way back in 2004. Yet their concerns couldn’t get much traction until Google became aware 13 years later that some current or prospective paying enterprise customers were uncomfortable with this practice.”
The decision to stop combing email to distribute specific ads in Gmail is a sign of Google’s seriousness in winning over corporate customers to use its internet infrastructure and services. Ads still represent a vast majority of Google’s revenue, but the company sees Google Cloud as a growth area.
Google had said its policy was not to target ads in Gmail based on personal information, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, health, or financial data, and that information extracted from a user’s email will only be used for ads in Gmail. Users may now opt out of receiving personalized ads in Gmail, but they may not opt out of email scanning.