Microsoft bets you're scared of Google

In its fight against Google, Microsoft is taking dead aim at the search giant's Achilles heel -- that people are frightened of Google's power to invade your privacy. Microsoft has pledged that unlike Google, it won't scan the contents of your email in Hotmail in order to deliver ads. Expect more moves like this from Microsoft.

Tim O'Brien, Microsoft senior director of platform strategy, said that Hotmail won't scan the contents of people's emails and then use that information to deliver ads based on what it discovers. Microsoft won't deliver any ads that are based on data that can be traced to a particular user. InfoWorld reports that O'Brien, at the SaaSCon 2010 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., added that "This is enshrined in policy across all our online services." In other words, this holds not just for Hotmail, but all of Microsoft's cloud services as well.

Google does scan the contents of your email, and it does use what it discovers to deliver advertising. Privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have criticized Google for that.

Microsoft's announcement comes at a time when Google is under increasing fire for its privacy policies. In February, Florida woman Eva Hibnick filed a class action suit against Google, claiming that Buzz violates privacy rights and federal law. And this week, New York resident Barry Feldma also filed a suit against Google claiming that Google Buzz violated a variety of federal and state privacy laws. The federal government and European governments have also expressed concern about Google and privacy

Google defends its scanning of mail and delivering ads based on mail content. InfoWorld says that Google representative Brian Richardson said this about the process:

"The process is similar to what all major email services use to scan for viruses and to filter out spam. To be clear, no human being ever reads the emails sent or received during this process."

Don't expect this issue to go away. And do expect Microsoft to keep hitting it hard. I'm guessing that Microsoft will also go after Google for privacy issues related to search and data retention. Back in December, Asa Dotzler, Mozilla's director of community development, said that people should abandon Google for search, and instead use Bing because Google CEO Eric Schmidt said this in an interview on MSNBC:

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

Of course, it's a bit difficult for Microsoft to take the high moral ground overall, given that Google has stood up to Chinese censors, while Microsoft still complies with them. Still, it's good to see big companies like Microsoft and Google debating not just whose technology is superior, but issues of even more importance, like privacy and censorship. The more they do it, the more they're forced to do the right thing, and the more all of us win.

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