Apr 15, 2014 · 4 minutes

Google has updated its Terms of Service agreement with Gmail users to explain its email scanning practice. The updated agreement makes it clear that the email scanning is done by automated systems, that it's done so Google can serve personalized ads, and that it's done on every step of the email process. The implicit foundation of its service has been made explicit.

Google spokesman Matt Kallman told Reuters that the change is "based on feedback we've received over the last few months." Apparently "lawsuits" and "feedback" are now synonyms: Google has been targeted by multiple lawsuits alleging that its old Terms of Service did not make its email scanning practices clear to consumers. But let's just go with "feedback."

Reactions from around the Web

ZDNet notes that US District Judge Lucy Koh prevented various lawsuits from joining together and forming one class action lawsuit earlier this year:

Last month, US District Judge Lucy Koh knocked back a class action claim that attempted to combine a number of separate complaints, filed earlier, that accused Google of breaching US wiretap laws. The plaintiffs were also prevented from pursuing the class action again in future.

While the ruling was a major win for Google, last year Koh rejected the company's argument that all email users implicitly consented to interception because of 'the way that email operates'.

Engadget points out that many people assumed that this is how Gmail worked anyway:

Many Gmail users know that the service scans email looking for ad keywords, but some have been upset that Google hasn't spelled this out -- enough so that there are several privacy lawsuits underway. The company may have just headed off future trouble, though, by updating its terms of service to clearly state what's taking place. Read through the giant text and you'll see that the company now explicitly warns that "automated systems analyze your content" for the sake of ads, customization and security.

CNET notes that Google has been criticized by privacy advocates -- the understatement of the decade:

Google has come under fire from privacy advocates who contend that the Web giant's automated scanning of email represents an illegal interception of their electronic communications without their consent. However, Google, which uses automated scanning to filter spam and deliver targeted advertising to its users, has noted that users consent to the practice in exchange for the email services.

Computerworld connects those concerns to Microsoft's Scroogled ad campaign:

The Internet giant's scanning of users' email has been controversial with privacy groups describing it as an intrusion into user privacy.

Competitor Microsoft claims in its 'Don't Get Scroogled by Gmail' campaign that its Outlook.com email service is superior to Gmail as unlike Google it does not go through email looking for keywords to target users with paid advertisements.

Pando weighs in

Yasha Levine has written extensively about for-profit surveillance systems like Google's:

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has not been shy about his company’s views on Internet privacy: People don’t have any, nor should they expect it. 'If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,' he infamously told CNBC in 2009. And he’s right. Because true Internet privacy and real surveillance reform would be the end of Google.

And not just Google, but nearly every major consumer Silicon Valley company — all of them feed people’s personal data one way or another and depend on for-profit surveillance for survival. And he explained why Google didn't implement end-to-end encryption years ago:

You’d think Silicon Valley companies like Yahoo or Google would have embraced end-to-end encryption, and used their massive email and chat marketshare to push the industry to follow suit. But that of course didn’t happen. Popular email/messaging service providers didn’t build encryption into their services — not even as an option that users could turn on for particularly sensitive messages.

The reason, as Vint Cerf explained above, had to do with the business realities of Surveillance Valley.

End-to-end encryption blocks Google just as effectively as it does the NSA. And if Google can’t read our emails, it can’t parse them for meaning. If it can’t parse them for meaning, it can’t build out our personality profiles. It can’t can’t profile us, it can’t sell its targeted ad services. And if can’t target us with ads, it can’t make the big bucks. $20 billion in pure profits, give or take. Carmel DeAmicis wrote about Google's efforts to gather data from elementary school students:

Google’s data mining activities are core to its business. It has built ahundred billion dollar empire on its targeted advertising offerings. That’s information it’s able to collect because Gmail and Google users give up their rights to privacy in exchange for the technology.

It has been mining the data of its users for years, and it seems to have forgotten that the laws surrounding certain demographics are a tad tougher. The government doesn’t look fondly on taking candy from babies — or students.