Google promised to make the move before the year’s end to bring the consumer version of Gmail in line with its business edition.
The firm had faced much criticism over the years for the scans.
The measure helped justify the cost of offering the public one gigabyte of “free” webmail storage in 2004 – an offer that was so much greater than the competition at the time that many originally believed it to be a joke.
However, UK-based campaign group Privacy International tried to block the scans once it became apparent they were the cost of signing up to the service. The organisation tried and failed to get the country’s data privacy regulator to intervene.
Then, a decade later, Microsoft ran a series of adverts, in which it first depicted a “Gmail man” searching through people’s messages, and then went on to accuse the search giant of “crossing the line” causing its customers to be “Scroogled”.
“When they first came up with the dangerous idea of monetising the content of our communications, Privacy International warned Google against setting the precedent of breaking the confidentiality of messages for the sake of additional income,” the charity’s executive director Dr Gus Hosein told the BBC.
“Of course they can now take this decision after they have consolidated their position in the marketplace as the aggregator of nearly all the data on internet usage, aside from the other giant, Facebook.
“The reality is that what you choose to say over email to another human being isn’t as interesting for exploitation as the data you have no control over – Google would rather exploit your data by tracking you across the internet, across their mobile operating system, their search engine, their apps, their smart devices, and likely some day soon, their car, amongst a myriad of other services that they dominate through the exploitation of our data.”
Another digital rights body, Big Brother Watch, was a little more positive.
“Whilst it could be seen as closing the stable door once the horse has bolted, there is no doubt that the end to the intrusive and frankly creepy process will be appreciated by a great many Gmail users,” commented its chief executive Renate Samson.
“However, none of us must rest on our laurels.
“Whilst tech companies should see this as an opportunity to halt other intrusive snooping for advertising purposes, citizens equally should take greater care not to sign up to services which routinely share your personal information with third parties for the purposes of advertising or marketing.
“Google’s move is absolutely a step in the right direction, let’s hope it encourages others to follow suit.”
While the ad-driven scans should soon stop, the news site Ars Technica has highlighted that Gmail messages will still be scanned by Google to provide artificial intelligence-powered “smart replies”, malware-protection and sorting for search queries.
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On the Tech Tent podcast this week, we explore the stunning resignation of Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick. We also hear why Indian IT workers are suffering mass lay-offs – and we ask whether virtual reality could have a more serious purpose beyond games and entertainment.
Uber loses its head
After last week’s news that Uber founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick was taking a leave of absence from the company, some observers might have assumed that would be the end of the turmoil for Uber’s management – at least for now.
But this week the company announced Mr Kalanick was stepping down from his role altogether – though he will remain on the company’s board.
The move came after a series of scandals over the the way Uber bosses treated female employees and customers.
Matters came to a head recently when a female ex-employee wrote a blog post detailing how managers failed to act on her complaints about sexism at work. That resulted in an investigation by the former US Attorney General Eric Holder, which recommended ways in which the company could change its culture and be run better.
On the podcast, we speak to Silicon Valley tech journalist Sarah Lacy, who, with her team, was among the first to report on Uber’s attitudes to women. She says it is the first time in three years that she can wake up without worrying whether she or her family will face some sort of retaliation from Uber.
But she says it may be ambitious to think Uber can change its culture unless it hires a totally different type of senior manager.
“It is hard to believe there is going to be a huge cultural reset here, and it is hard to believe that a company that is entirely staffed by people hired under that regime are suddenly going to do a big cultural re-shift,” she says.
India’s IT workers out of work
In recent years, India’s IT sector has been a poster-child for the country’s rapid economic growth. By providing outsourced IT services to brands across the world, the multibillion dollar industry helped create millions of jobs for Indians.
But the industry is now facing a slowdown because of a trend by Western companies to bring some IT jobs home, and the inroads being made by automation. Some of the jobs that used to be done by Indian workers can now be handled by software. These changes have led to drastic cuts, and there are fears there could more layoffs in the coming months and years.
The BBC’s Sameer Hashmi travelled to Bangalore – regarded as India’s Silicon Valley – to meet workers and managers.
He met 49-year old Pankaj Rao, who, after working in a prestigious IT job for a decade, was dismissed along with his entire team. He is now frantically sending his resume to prospective employers.
“My father, my wife, my children, all are worried what will happen tomorrow,” he says.
But Atul Kanwar, the chief technology officer at the IT giant Tech Mahindra, says it’s likely that all jobs that involve repetitive tasks will be automated.
“Automation is all-pervasive,” he says. “It used to be a situation of doing it at the lowest end but now automation is for any repetitive task.” He advises workers: “Make sure that over time you are not doing a repetitive task.”
A virtual trip to space
So far, the focus for virtual reality has been on games and entertainment. But could its so-called “killer application” be in the workplace, for training staff, for example?
Zoe Kleinman visited the IBM research labs in Hursley, Hampshire, where she tried out a VR simulation.
From inside an English country house she paid a virtual visit to the International Space Station, where she floated around and even popped out through a hatch into Space to explore outside the craft.
Gwillam Newton, emerging-tech specialist at IBM, tells Zoe how the company is pitching the technology as a way for companies, such as airlines, to train aircrew without leaving the ground.
“Places where it’s hard to go and train people or are expensive, the idea is that you create a few virtual reality rigs like this, and people can explore virtual reality in a safe and cost-effective manner.”
The UK Online Civil Courage Initiative’s initial partners include Imams Online and the Jo Cox Foundation.
Facebook has faced criticism for being slow to react to terrorist propaganda on its platforms.
“The recent terror attacks in London and Manchester – like violence anywhere – are absolutely heartbreaking,” said Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
“No-one should have to live in fear of terrorism – and we all have a part to play in stopping violent extremism from spreading.
“We know we have more to do – but through our platform, our partners and our community we will continue to learn to keep violence and extremism off Facebook.”
In recent months, governments across Europe have been pushing for technology companies to take more action to prevent online platforms from being used to spread extremist propaganda.
In particular, security services have criticised Facebook, Twitter and Google for relying too much on other people to report inappropriate content, rather than spotting it themselves.
In April, Germany passed a bill to fine social networks up to €50m (£44m) if they failed to give users the option to report hate speech and fake news, or if they refused to remove illegal content flagged as either images of child sexual abuse or inciting terrorism.
Following the London Bridge terror attack, UK PM Theresa May announced that new international agreements needed to be introduced to regulate the internet in order to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online”.
And last week in Paris, Mrs May and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a joint campaign to look at how they could make the internet safe, including making companies legally liable if they refused to remove certain content.
Similar initiatives to counter hate speech were launched in Germany in January 2016 and in France in March 2017.
They have held training workshops with more than 100 anti-hate and anti-extremism organisations across Europe, and reached 3.5 million people online through its Facebook page.
In the UK, people are being encouraged to visit the UK OCCI Facebook page, to share stories, content and ideas, and use the hashtag #civilcourage.
Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered MP Jo Cox and the founder of the Jo Cox Foundation, has welcomed the move.
“This is a valuable and much needed initiative from Facebook in helping to tackle extremism,” he said.
“Anything that helps push the extremists even further to the margins is greatly welcome. Social media platforms have a particular responsibility to address hate speech that has too often been allowed to flourish online.
“It is critical that efforts are taken by all online service providers and social networks to bring our communities closer together and to further crack down on those that spread violence and hatred online.”
An update to Snapchat that shows publicly posted images on a searchable map has raised safety concerns among parents.
Snap Map lets people search for places such as schools and see videos and pictures posted by children inside.
It also lets people locate their “friends” on a map that is accurate enough to determine where people live.
Snap, the company behind Snapchat, stressed to the BBC that location sharing was an opt-in feature.
Snap Map was launched on Wednesday and was promoted as a “new way to explore the world”.
Video clips and photos that members have posted publicly can be discovered on the map, while members who have chosen to share their location can also be seen on the map by those they have added as “friends”.
However, members can add people they have never met to their friends list too.
A message to parents posted by St Peter’s Academy in Staffordshire warned that the location-sharing feature lets people “locate exactly where you are, which building you are in and exact whereabouts within the building”.
One parent described the update as “dangerous” while another said she could not find the setting to disable it.
People have expressed concern online that the app could be used for stalking or working out exactly where somebody lives.
“If you zoom right in on this new Snapchat map thing it literally tells you where everyone lives? Like exact addresses – bit creepy no?” wrote one user called Leanne.
“This new Snapchat update is awful. An invitation for stalkers, kidnappers, burglars and relationship trust issues,” suggested Jade.
Snap told the BBC that accurate location information was necessary to allow friends to use the service to meet, for example at a restaurant or crowded festival, and said points of interest on the map, such as schools, were provided by third-party mapping service Mapbox.
Concerned parents could find out more information on its Privacy Center website, a spokesman told the BBC.
How to switch off Snap Map location sharing
When in photo-taking mode, pinch the screen to open Snap Map
Touch the settings cog in the top right corner of the screen
Tap “Ghost Mode” to switch off location sharing
Photos and videos posted to Snapchat’s public ‘Our Story’ will still be discoverable on the map
A demonstration of driverless cars in Nuneaton will be followed later this year by trials on public roads.
Autodrive – a collaboration between Jaguar Land Rover, Ford and Tata Motors – showed off how autonomous cars can talk to each other.
It included warning drivers when an emergency vehicle was approaching and offering real-time traffic information.
The first set of public road trials are due to take place in Milton Keynes and Coventry by the end of the year.
A fleet of up to 40 self-driving pavement-based ‘pods’ will also be introduced in pedestrianised areas of Milton Keynes.
Another aspect of the demo showed how connected cars can detect the presence of other connected cars on the approach to a junction and warn drivers if there is a high probability of a collision.
“The successful completion of the proving ground trials marks a significant milestone for the project team, and we are now looking forward to demonstrating the benefits of these exciting new technologies in the real-world settings of Milton Keynes and Coventry,” said Tim Armitage, UK Autodrive project director.
“Once the technology becomes widely available, we anticipate huge potential benefits in terms of road safety, improved traffic flow and general access to transport, so we’re really excited about being able to demonstrate this on real roads.”
There are similar trials going on around the UK, including in Greenwich which is using similar pods to those planned for Milton Keynes.
A consortium of British companies known as Driven are planning to test driverless cars on motorways in 2019.
The UK government has paved the way for driverless cars, laying out a legislative framework in the Queen’s Speech which included plans to update car insurance so that driverless vehicles would be subject to the same rules as normal ones.
The technology that allows cars to become more autonomous has been increasing in recent years with all the main manufacturers now offering some element of driverless technology, including self-parking features and cruise control on motorways.
UK government research suggests that the market for automated vehicles in the UK will be worth £28bn by 2035.
WhatsApp is becoming one of the prevailing ways people discover and discuss news, according to a study.
But use of the messaging app appears to vary widely between countries.
In Malaysia, more than 50% of those surveyed said they used WhatsApp for news at least once a week. But in the US, the figure was only 3%, and in the UK it was 5%.
The Digital News Study also indicates the Brexit debate has led to growing mistrust of the UK’s media.
It said only 43% of respondents declared that the news could be trusted – down from 50% last year – with the BBC in particular criticised for having both a pro-EU bias and failing to expose the “distortions” of the leave campaign.
Private is popular
The research was carried out by the Reuters Institute For The Study of Journalism and covered 34 countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia, in addition to Taiwan and Hong Kong.
A total of 71,805 people were questioned by YouGov in January and February to generate its data.
The results indicate that Facebook remains the most popular social media and messaging service for news engagement in all but two countries – Japan and South Korea – where, respectively, YouTube and Kakao Talk dominate.
But it adds that use of Facebook for news had dipped in more than half of all the territories where a year-on-year comparison was possible.
By contrast, sharing news stories and chatting about them appears to be on the rise within private instant messaging apps, and WhatsApp in particular.
According to the report, WhatsApp is now the second most popular social service for news in nine of the 36 locations, and the third most popular platform in a further five countries.
The authors provide several potential explanations for WhatsApp’s rise.
Its use of end-to-end encryption means messages can only be seen by their senders and recipients, offering users protection against being monitored by the authorities.
“Some of the biggest growth we’ve seen is in places like Turkey, where it’s positively dangerous for people to express anti-government preferences on open networks like Facebook,” explained one of the study’s authors, Nic Newman.
“As a result people are using closed groups where they are more confident of expressing their views.”
WhatsApp has also benefited from the fact that in much of Latin America and elsewhere mobile networks are offering unlimited data use within the program, so encouraging its use.
Furthermore, several Spanish and Chilean media outlets have embraced the app. Radio stations commonly ask listeners to send in short voice recordings via the service, and local news sites have added share-to-WhatsApp buttons to their pages.
However, Mr Newman said beyond that, it was difficult for the media to take advantage of the app’s popularity beyond publishing stories that people want to share.
“You can set up branded areas or groups of people on your own, but it’s incredibly clunky and time consuming, and there are few tools to help,” he explained.
“And part of WhatsApp’s appeal is that users don’t get interrupted by brands, making it a very pure form of messaging. That’s something [its developers] will really try to hold to.”
Too close to power
The report also highlights widespread concerns about so-called “fake news”.
It highlights users’ suspicions that social media’s lack of rules and use of viral algorithms have helped low-quality false stories spread quickly.
But it says there is also strong distrust of the mainstream media, in particular in Asian and central, southern and eastern European countries, where the industry is perceived as being too close to government.
Analysis: Amol Rajan, Media Editor
This year’s Digital News Report is even more sobering than usual.
Many of the institutions that contribute to democracy in the West are undergoing a crisis of trust. News providers are no exception. UK citizens’ trust in news “in general” has fallen by 7% since the Brexit referendum, the report suggests.
That is a worrying drop. Combine it with Reuters’ revelation that the proportion of people paying for online news in the UK remains “among the lowest of all countries” surveyed, and alarm bells should ring.
One reason for this could be the BBC, whose dominance in our news ecosystem might mean fewer people feel the need to pay for good information.
For a new generation, the link between high-quality general news and payment for that news might be breaking.
The internet has made general, daily news a very common commodity. With tech giants like Facebook and Google eating ever more of the advertising pie, news providers may find they have to specialise if they are to get audiences to part with cash. And those audiences won’t pay for content they don’t trust.
Rebuilding that trust, in an era of digital echo chambers and fake news, is going to be tough. But it must be done.
Yahoo News remains the most popular online news brand, in terms of the numbers of people using it at least once a week, across the 36 markets as a whole.
It also ranked as the top online source of online news in the US, Japan and Taiwan.
Its success may have been driven in part by the fact many users said it was better at delivering “amusing and entertaining” content than the competition.
Other findings reported include:
dedicated news apps appear to be making a “comeback”, but this is thought to be because existing users are making more regular use of the programs rather than there being a surge in the number of new installs
Apple News is one of the fastest growing news aggregator services, with some publishers reporting that up to a third of their mobile traffic now comes from the app and its related widget, which flags stories on iOS devices’ search screens
online video remains a tough sell, with nearly half of respondents saying they had not consumed a clip on a news site or via social media in the past week
Blocking ad blockers
Making money from online news remains problematic.
The study said 84% of respondents had not paid for content in the past year.
However, it highlighted that there had been a “Trump bump” in the US, where several newspapers had attracted hundreds of thousands of new digital subscribers, many of whom have left-wing views and are under 35.
Another development that will be welcomed by the industry is that the use of ad blockers on desktop PCs appears to have stalled and remains low on smartphones, with only 7% of respondents saying they had installed advert removing software on their handset.
Moreover, a “tough love” approach taken by some publishers – whereby they block access to their content if an ad blocker is in use – appears to have convinced many users to at least temporarily suspend the plug-in’s use.