Microsoft throws stones at Google, but they share the same greenhouse

Last week saw the release of new Microsoft ads promoting its Outlook email software as a privacy-friendly alternative to Google’s Gmail. Does Microsoft really want to open that can of worms?


The ads hone in on Gmail’s use of contextually targeted ads, which are shown around email messages based on keywords that Google finds in the text. In a video posted on a dedicated website that accompanies its campaign, Microsoft explicitly calls Gmail’s ads an “invasion of privacy”, and suggests switching to Outlook.

Whatever your feelings about how sensitive or appropriate Gmail’s ad format is, or about Google’s approach to privacy generally, Microsoft is opening up its own flanks to counter-attacks by criticising another technology company’s data processing policies.

Gmail’s ads are a soft target – which is not to say they’re an unfair one – given that it does feel instinctively wrong that the contents of private messages are scanned for commercial purposes. Indeed, a US judge recently allowed a class action lawsuit against Google to proceed on the grounds that its privacy policy is unclear about these ads.

The complaints allege that email scanning amounts to illegal wiretapping. Google denies that and its privacy policy states that the process is automated and no humans read users’ emails.

But still, just because Microsoft doesn’t use the same technology, doesn’t mean the company is less active than Google in utilising user data for advertising purposes. Virtually all internet advertising companies are engaged in building profiles of individual consumers based on information such as location, interests and web browsing habits that, if they were linked together, could create potentially revealing insights about a person.

It is not just what is scanned that determines whether someone’s privacy is preserved. More important is if, where and how securely the data is stored; what other information it is linked with that might make it identifiable; and who, if anyone, has access to it.

Microsoft would do well to remember too that we can’t yet appreciate the full fall-out of the revelations by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden. In the first set of news reports by The Guardian based on his disclosures, Microsoft was named as the first of all the internet companies to sign up to the US government’s Prism programme, which supposedly allows its National Security Agency to make direct data requests to their servers.

The tech companies haven’t yet had the chance to defend themselves against those allegations, given the restrictions on what they are allowed to say. But until the public has a clearer idea of their role, it seems rather reckless for Microsoft to be levelling accusations at other companies.

What consumers need now, at a time when debates about the use of data in marketing are more delicately poised than ever, is not tit-for-tat finger-pointing that highlights some issues while drawing a veil across others. It’s clear, factual and honest communication.

Who do you most admire in the data marketing industry? Click here to vote for the Data Professional of the Year.

Voting closes on 22 November 2013 and the winner will be announced at the Data Strategy Awards on 6 February 2014.

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