From its start, Gmail conditioned us to trade privacy for free services

Long before Gmail was smart enough to complete your sentences, Google’s now-ubiquitous email service was greasing the public for a fate that defined the Internet age: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

When Gmail was announced on April 1, 2004, its high promises and timing of release reported people thought it was a joke. It wasn’t the first web-based email provider—Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail had been around for years – but Gmail offered faster service, automatic chat grouping for messages, integrated search functions and 1GB of storage, which at the time was a big leap in personal cloud storage. Google boasted in its press release that one gigabyte was “more than 100 times” what its competitors offered. All this is free.

There is no such thing as free, except as Gmail and the countless tech companies that followed taught us. Using Gmail came with a trade-off that’s now commonplace: You get access to its service, and in return Google gets your data. Specifically, its software can scan the content of account holders’ emails and use that information to show them personalized ads in the site’s sidebar. For better or worse, it was a groundbreaking approach.

“Depending on your take, Gmail is either too good to be true or the height of corporate arrogance, especially coming from a company whose house motto is ‘Don’t be evil,'” said tech journalist Paul Boutin. Slate When Gmail is launched. (Boutin, one of its first media testers, wrote positively about Google’s email scanning, but suggested the company opt out so users could opt out entirely.)

There was an immediate backlash from those who thought Gmail was a privacy nightmare, but it grew and generated a lot of hype in its first few years thanks to its invite-only status, which fueled the resale market for Gmail invites. $150 a pop TIME. Despite the heat, Google continued its ad-based email scanning practices for more than a decade until the 2010s, when Gmail went public in 2007 and really started to gain traction.

So why not? If Gmail proved anything, people would, for the most part, accept such terms. Or at least not care enough to read the fine print closely. Gmail in 2012 became the largest in the world Email service with 425 million active users.

Other sites have followed Google’s lead and put similar deals into their terms of service, so people’s use of the product would automatically mean consent to data collection and certain forms of sharing. Facebook started integrating targeted ads In 2007, based on the online activities of its users, this experience has become a pillar of social media success ever since.

Things have changed a lot in recent years with the rise of a more tech-savvy public and increased regulatory scrutiny. Gmail users have tried to do this several times class actions it’s over scanning issue, and in 2017, Google finally came out of the cave. that year, the company announced that regular Gmail users’ emails will no longer be scanned for ad personalization (paid enterprise Gmail accounts already had this treatment).

Google, of course, still collects users’ data in other ways and uses the data to serve hyper-relevant ads. It still scans emails, both for security purposes and to power some smart features. And the company came under fire again in 2018 after that The Wall Street Journal revealed that allows third-party developers trawling users’ Gmail inboxes, Google responded by reminding users that it is within their power to grant and revoke these permissions. whom CNET reporters Laura Hautala and Richard Nieva then wrote, Google’s response more or less came down to: “This is what you signed up for.”

Indeed, what users signed up for was a state-of-the-art email platform that was, at the time, running circles around other services, and in many ways still is. This has made privacy concerns easier to swallow for some. Since its inception, Gmail has set the bar pretty high with a free feature set. Users could send files up to 25MB at a time and check their email from anywhere as long as they had an internet connection and access to a browser because it wasn’t tied to a desktop application.

It popularized the cloud as well as the AJAX Javascript technique, Wired It was mentioned in a piece for Gmail’s 10th anniversary. This made Gmail dynamic, allowing the inbox to automatically update and display new messages without the user clicking buttons. And it more or less eliminated spam by filtering out unsolicited messages.

Still, when Gmail first launched, many saw it as a huge gamble for Google, which had already established itself with its search engine. “A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, both from a product and strategic perspective,” said Gmail founder Paul Buchheit. TIME In 2014. “The concern was that it had nothing to do with web search.”

Clearly, things have gone well, and Gmail’s dominance has only grown stronger. Gmail crossed the one billion user mark In 2016, its number doubled. It’s still leading email innovation 20 years after it first hit the web, incorporating increasingly advanced features to make the process of receiving and replying to emails (which, let’s be honest, is a daunting daily task for many of us) easier. Gmail may have finally changed its approach to data collection, but the precedent it set is now deeply embedded in the exchange of services on the web; companies receive information from consumers to work then they can ask for forgiveness.

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