Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's announcement yesterday that his company is launching a consolidated e-mail/instant message/text message service has sent the technorati into a predictable tizzy. Facebook's new messaging feature is one of those tech innovations whose significance is tough to judge right away. But it's clear that the social-networking giant will be competing for users with the company that dominates most other parts of the Web: Google.
And that necessitates the question: Which of these two companies, both of which have weathered controversies over user privacy, would you like to have reading your mail? Because that's quite literally what both Google and Facebook have been doing, and will continue to do.
Google has come under fire in the past for its practice of scanning Gmail users' messages to generate tailored advertisements. (For what it's worth, the company asserts that no actual human beings read the e-mails -- just computer programs.) During his announcement yesterday, Zuckerberg likewise made clear that Facebook messages would be scanned to produce that endless stream of pointless display ads you see on the margins of your screen.
Is there any reason to trust one company over another when it comes to privacy? Tough to say. Google's voluminous archives of data on user searches have earned it the ire of some Internet privacy activists, but the company also made a rare stand against the federal government when subpoenaed to share that data. Facebook's approach to privacy, meanwhile, has been characterized by repeated scandal and obfuscation.
Maybe the best thing for now is simply to get used to the idea of your e-mail provider scanning your messages. Or revive that old Hotmail account.
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