Microsoft Attacks Google on Gmail Privacy
By NICK WINGFIELD
On Thursday, Microsoft plans to unveil a new print, television and online advertising campaign that attacks Google on an issue that Microsoft believes is one of its great vulnerabilities: privacy. The ads will showcase research that shows most people don’t know that Web e-mail providers like Google scan the contents of their e-mail messages to deliver personalized ads to them — and when they do find out, they don’t like it.
If Gmail was a physical product, Microsoft’s actions would amount to putting a sticker on it that said, “Warning: Google is creepy.”
Microsoft has gone after Google in this fashion before, most recently with an advertising campaign over the holidays under the slogan “Scroogled” that attacked Google for compromising the quality of its shopping search results. It has even slammed the company on privacy before in a campaign that featured a goofy personification of Google’s e-mail service that Microsoft named “Gmail Man.”
Microsoft has been investing more in its Google attacks in recent months. Mark Penn, the former Democratic political consultant and adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, joined Microsoft as an employee last year in part to help the company identify chinks in Google’s armor and to craft advertisements that seek to turn them into full-blown cracks. Mr. Penn was involved in the latest Gmail campaign, as he was on the Scroogled campaign over the holidays, according to Microsoft.
Google supporters say that Microsoft’s ads are distasteful, the last resort of a company that has been unsuccessful at competing against Google on the more noble battleground of products or, so far, in instigating serious regulatory action against its rival.
But privacy is a real issue for many consumers, and Microsoft argues that Google’s customers simply don’t understand the ways in which Google is using their personal data. Google automatically scans e-mail messages in Gmail to display ads that might be relevant to their content. Get an e-mail about an Alaska cruise and Gmail gives you ads for cruises, and so on.
In an interview late last year, Frank Shaw, a Microsoft spokesman, described in colorful terms how Microsoft thinks about the issue: “Privacy is Google’s kryptonite.”
Microsoft says its Web mail service, Outlook.com, does not scan the contents of messages to create targeted ads, though the company does employ other data that users provide when they sign up for service, like sex and location, when it delivers ads. The company also automatically scans e-mail messages as part of its spam filtering process.
Stefan Weitz, senior director of online services at Microsoft, said in an interview that Microsoft commissioned a telephone survey in which 70 percent of respondents said they were not aware that major e-mail services scan their private messages for targeting ads and, when they learn that fact, 88 percent of them disapprove of the practice. Mr. Weitz said its poll did not mention Google, Microsoft or any other e-mail provider by name.
Mr. Weitz said Microsoft is one of the only companies that has the scale and resources to highlight what Google is doing without worrying about repercussions from Google. “There’s a lot of fear out there,” Mr. Weitz said. “We can bring these issues to light without fear.”
Google said in a statement that advertising is what keeps Google’s services free for consumers. “We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant,” the company said. “No humans read your e-mail or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information. An automated algorithm — similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering — determines which ads are shown.”
Microsoft declined to say how much it will spend on the new Gmail ad campaign, which will also use the Scroogled slogan and appear on a Web site Microsoft has set up to showcase its Google ads at Scroogled.com.