Google Will "Scan" Your Email, Not "Read" It. What Hypocrisy

Last Updated Oct 27, 2010 2:31 PM EDT

When a CEO puts his foot in his mouth, you can expect a quick attempt by PR minions to rewrite the past. But what happens when Eric Schmidt puts both of his feet in his mouth? Google's (GOOG) PR department goes into overdrive issuing corrections.

However, in the latest example of cleaning up after Schmidt, Google bungled doubly. First, it choose an unnecessary complete about face on the most widely reported of Schmidt's remarks: people who objected to being on Google Street Views could move after the company's car had been by to take photographs. Regarding the far less widely reported discrepancy between Schmidt's statement that Google doesn't read Gmail messages and the service's contradicting privacy policy, the response was even more inept. The company pretended that automated analysis of emails was not the same as "reading" them.

Sweeping the verbal damage after Schmidt can be time consuming. As Fortune's Seth Weintraub succinctly put it, Schmidt has a serious PR problem. Being someone open at least some of the time -- which, these days, passes for Weintraub's "refreshingly candid" -- is good to see. Many tech companies have such money and power that they also have a social and ethical obligation to stop the pretense that private industry is separate from and unaccountable to the rest of the existence. When you can and do significantly influence the direction of the world, affecting literally everyone, you lose the right to demand to be left alone.

However, a CEO must also realize that reporters can and will bend public statements out of shape. For the good of the discussion itself and the company's interests, chief executives must express themselves in a way that is clear and does not encourage "interpretation."

It's exactly what Schmidt fails to do. Look at his remark about Google Street View on CNN's (TWX) Parker Spitzer show:
During an appearance on CNN's "Parker Spitzer," previewed on CNN.com, the Google chief responded to questions about personal data the company collects, including images of private homes presented on Street View."Street View, we drive exactly once," Schmidt said, referring to the vehicles mounted with cameras sent out to take photos for the service. "So, you can just move, right?" After a brief, subsequent exchange with co-host Kathleen Parker, Schmidt laughed, making it unclear whether the remark was made in jest.

On Monday, a number of people, including me, reported on this yet-another-Schmidt-slip. By Tuesday, Google PR was finally in high gear, trying to contain the damage. I got an email from a company press person with an attempt to cover their rears clarify what Schmidt actually meant to say via a statement attributed to the CEO:
As you can see from the unedited interview, my comments were made during a fairly long back and forth on privacy. I clearly misspoke. If you are worried about Street View and want your house removed please contact Google and we will remove it.
Various publications like All Things Digital covered this attempt at retraction. Watch the clip and you can see that Schmidt seemed to be joking. The problem was that he didn't immediately acknowledge the joke, possibly note that some people might not find it funny, but explain that those who were concerned about privacy could get themselves taken off the system. After all the criticism Google has fielded over privacy concerns, you'd think this would have been an obvious step to take.

The result, and not the first time this has happened, is that Schmidt appears to reenact the 1980 U.S. presidential debates from 1984 all by himself as he plays Jimmy Carter to his own Ronald Reagan. "There I go again" echoes from the statement.

What the canned statement didn't address was the issue that few caught: Schmidt's claim that Google doesn't read Gmail messages. I emailed the PR person who sent me the Schmidt "I really didn't mean it that way" quote and pointed out that the Gmail privacy policy made it clear that Google goes through all emails to target advertising. Here's his reply:
Re: Gmail, we don't read Gmail. Servers automatically scan messages to target advertisements or related information. This is the same technology used in most email servers to provide spam filtering, virus detection, and spell checking. But again, no human ever reads your email as part of this process.
When I answered that I saw no practical difference, as the company made use of what people wrote in emails, the PR person wrote:
By reading, we mean a human being reading your email. By scanning, we mean servers automatically scanning that involves no humans whatsoever.
Something about this smacks of a different moment in presidential politics: Bill Clinton debating the meaning of the word "is". In that case, Clinton, a crafty speaker with a pedigreed legal background, actually said that he answered a literal and limited question concerning one-time fling Monica Lewinsky that a reporter asked him in a way that suited the Stain Creator in Chief. Clinton took the easy way out and avoided the broader question whether he had ever been involved with the young woman. No surprise there.

But to claim a difference between reading and scanning is inane. So an activity doesn't count if done automatically? Does that mean Google's search engine doesn't index billions of Web pages because people don't do it by hand? Maybe Google Street Views doesn't actually take pictures of homes and businesses because the process is automated and not manual. And, of course, Google never sampled data from Wi-Fi networks....

Of course, this is nonsense. The company goes through each and every one of the emails -- sent and received -- that the Gmail system processes. It uses all the information it gains to better deliver ads, and so all that data becomes part of the extensive personal information the company keeps on individuals.

Perhaps this seems petty or silly. And yet, there is something in the logical conclusion of such a statement. Google pretends that any action, unless physically performed by humans, is innocuous. That's another way of saying that intentions and ultimate use don't count and that individuals should be held unaccountable for what the tools, which they design and direct, actually do. Wait, let me guess, we can always move to another planet.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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