Text size

It's rare for a torrent of words to be written about a new service yet to be launched, but that's exactly what has happened since Google, the Internet search company, announced it would launch a new email service, Gmail, in a few months. There are two reasons for the outpouring of hype. First, Google will instantly kill the email services market by offering to store - free - a whopping one gigabyte (1,000 megabytes) of email messages, which will be 100 to 500 times more than other services. Second - the catch - it will display ads linked to the content of the user's messages.

Haaretz's Captain Internet tested the new service last week. A message arrives in the user's inbox. The message is from a friend asking for advice on buying a digital camera, a Sony or Olympus. When the message is opened a text ad appears alongside it inviting the reader to surf to a site that sells digital cameras and to another site that sells Sony digital cameras.

Activists for privacy protection were outraged - "Google is reading your mail," they howled. A California senator proposed legislation against the mail service because it is equivalent to "putting a huge billboard in the middle of your house."

Although the senator's argument had no foundation - is anyone forcing her to use Gmail? - there is some reason for the concerns Gmail is raising. After all, what's to prevent Google developing software that will set off an alarm if someone uses certain words - like "dirty bomb" or "freedom for China"? If Google is reading the mail anyway, why not do some moonlighting for the intelligence agencies?

It is a worrying possibility, but is Google really "reading" our mail? It's the act of "reading" that is the source of the feeling of unease and the symbol of invasiveness, like the warder who reads the prisoner's letters, like the television that watches you as you watch it. However, machines don't read anything. One who "reads" understands the broad context of the sentence and is capable of admiring the grammar and the richness of the language. Google's machines don't do that, because they're not capable of doing it.

It's possible that the struggle between those who fear for their privacy and those who are fond of high-volume storage capacity will be decided by the actor Kevin Spacey, who a few days ago happened, to his misfortune, to join those who accept Google's insistent claim that its people don't "read" anything.

The two-time Academy Award winner was walking his dog in London, where he lives, at 4 A.M. - "my doggy had to go." A youth approached him and asked to use his mobile phone so he could call his mother. Spacey obliged and the youth took the phone and ran off. Stunned, Spacey tried to give chase, became entangled in the dog's leash and fell on the sidewalk. Immediately afterward he reported the mugging to the police and went home to sleep.

The Associated Press reported Spacey, 44, saying he "woke up after a couple of hours' sleep and thought, you know, there's a difference between assault and theft and it just wasn't (right) for me to not come clean about my own level of embarrassment and being humble at the fact that I got taken by the oldest con going." He withdrew his complaint to the police.

What does this have to do with Google, Gmail and privacy? Well, the report about the embarrassed Spacey appeared on Google's news site under the category of "Science and Technology." But where's the science here? The kid's method of operation? Maybe the advanced technology of cellular phones that makes it possible to make contact with people who are far off?

No. The reason that Google placed the story under that weird category is the name of the hero of the tale - Spacey. Yes, lurking in the actor's surname is the word "space," and that's already a matter for people who are interested in science.

And there's the point exactly. It's not "Google's staff that sited the story" there but the algorithm of Google - the machines, the computers that were mistaken in their interpretation of the story. The algorithm of Google, the cousin of the algorithm that decides which ads will be displayed in Gmail, doesn't understand that the word Spacey has nothing to do with the stars in the sky but with the stars in the movies.

It doesn't understand, because that's the nature of a mathematical algorithm - it's dumb, it's dense, it's an accounting creation that has less than nothing to do with reading or comprehension, or with reading comprehension. And anyway, what do anti-junk mail programs do if not "read" the message line and decide what's junk and what's not?

Google's e-mail service is thought-provoking, and there is no reason to ignore the serious consequences it may bring, but there is also no reason to humanize it. Anyone who makes of Google a company whose employees are drooling as they read every word of your e-mail does so out of lack of understanding - or because of some sort of vested interest that's hidden in the folds of his coat.