Gmail’s Latest Consent Box Is a Privacy Mousetrap

Pen Magnet
Dec 7, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Disclaimer: This article is about the free version of Gmail (yourname@gmail.com). I haven’t tried Gmail for business, or G-suit, and do not know if it applies to them or not.

When I logged into my Gmail today, I saw a consent box asking me a bizarre set of permissions:

Courtesy: Gmail

Due to my inherent skepticism for anything that offers a smartcut (smart shortcut), I clicked Turn Off + Next to proceed.

Here is what I saw after clicking Next:

Courtesy: Gmail

I was baffled.

My first instinct was: Was this designed by a professional UX designer? How can Google expect me to flip a switch to turn-on/turn-off 12 features of Gmail?

Or was this someone who passed out from Google’s $49 courses that included User Experience design?

On an optimistic note (with sincere apologies to the aspiring $49 course students 😔) — maybe this is the reason Google started taking UX seriously, and we can expect better UX from Gmail in near future.

An age-old business tactic:

Smart businessmen employ this technique every time they want a huge pie of the customer’s assets. It works great when the following two conditions are true:

  • You must offer something tangible, of infinitesimal value with utmost urgency to act from the customer
  • Customers are too lazy + too greedy to even think about what they are giving up

Gmail caught me in the middle of something very urgent, and I was in no mood of having second thoughts. But I wasn’t greedy enough. Something stopped me from consenting too fast.

I remembered the Europeans’ colonial past.

When Britishers and other European traders went to rich colonies of Asia, they offered precious gifts to colonial kings. In lieu of those gifts, the kings allowed them to sell merchandise on their land. Slowly, Europeans began to offer their armies to kings. What was the selling point? Security to kings from neighboring states. Kings deserved royal lives, not the dust of the savage warzones.

Lazy and foolish kings gladly accepted. When they realized the whole game, it was too late. Armed with the industrial revolution, Europeans (mostly Britishers) captured the colonies and began to rule the world.

Tech megaliths are no different from European colonists. Gmail is a prime example of how an advertising company leverages its freebie mousetrap.

Due to its ability to categorize email + spam separation + speed of the chrome browser, it became a choice for many yahoo users at the beginning of the 2010 decade. People loved it for its great categorization of promotions and social notifications.

At the onset of AI, Gmail began to monetize its dominance by analyzing content being communicated. Gmail targeted ads weren’t unknown to anyone. Since its inception, when you click on a link from within Gmail inbox, the first domain in your browser URL is Google domain, followed by a redirect link.

Gmail’s text parsing of the content is being offered as a smart capability to aid grammar checks:

That’s Google’s requirement. It needs your data because it is vital to its core business. There is nothing wrong with this, as far as it is consented by you.

And the consent is well-communicated.

What does the 12-Settings Box (Possibly) Do?

Credit: Gmail (Edited by author)

Let us revisit the 12-feature box.

  • All the items with a red arrow pointing to them require deep analysis of the email content. (Yes, the content and the intent of the emails, not just disparate words to target tag-centered ads.). You can totally do away without them if you aren’t forgetful about the events of your life.
  • All items with the purple arrows are similar in their data-gathering + analysis. The only difference is that they provide significant productivity to you — the user, in your daily chores of dealing with 150+ emails every day.
  • All items with blue arrows are possible items that do not rely on your private/personal data, and helpful to you in boosting your communication productivity. I have kept the last item (Google Pay) under the same belt because your Google Pay merchants are already known to Google. Allowing them to convert better isn’t wrong, as long as it doesn’t invade your privacy without your consent.

The problem isn’t that all this data is being collected from you. Gmail is free as of today, and free offerings have to be ad-supported.

The problem is that Google has combined them under single consent. Clubbing 12 consents together is no consent at all.

Do you want productivity? Accept our data-collection features that power our AI. I say this because I clearly remember smart suggestions being a separate Gmail setting very recently.

So what did my turn-off bring to me?

I wanted to see what my dreadful future held if I shielded myself from the red + purple arrows. And giving away the productivity advantages of the blue arrows.

As soon as I clicked Turn-off, my inbox turned into a nightmare.

The #1 blue arrow in the image above, and Gmail’s most attractive feature — those segregated tabs that separated Promotions, Social, and Inbox — was gone!

I knew it would be gone, but I hadn’t imagined the impact.

My Inbox turned into 35000+ unread emails, something that I had never allowed to happen priorly.

In the last 10 years, we are so accustomed to Promotions + Social tabs that we rarely even check them, let alone delete unnecessary emails from them. (Sometimes, even necessary emails landed there. But never mind, it’s better than getting spammed). Their advantage outweighed their pitfalls.

I was still skeptical: This wasn’t something they needed. It’s me who needed smart features more.

But I quickly knew. Seconds after turning them off, I was offered another opportunity. I saw ugly Gmail prompts littered throughout my inbox, luring me to turn-on the smart features.

My inconvenience, coupled with their offering it too soon. My mind dwelled heavily on the 17th-century European colonialism tactics.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

Parting Words (What Shall I Do)?

My older yahoo account has 10000+ unread emails to date. I have been switching all my accounts access to Gmail since 2010, the year when Yahoo was still ahead of Gmail.

Despite my crucial emails residing in Yahoo, and despite their switching to Gmail-like conversation view, I have been reluctant to switch back.

The only reason I am not switching back to Yahoo is I dread sifting through (and delete) those dreadful 10000+ unreads.

As I looked into Gmail Promotions and Social emails, I was reminded that they were simply segregated by labels. If I filter them, I could delete them in bulk. I could even create a rule to move it to chosen folders, but as of now, I do not see rule creation in my Gmail settings.

Given that Gmail allows me to view only 100 emails at max per page, filtering + deletion would take me 350 iterations to delete 35000 emails.

A layman is less likely to go that deep, and would simply turn on the smart features. And if I choose not to be a layman, I must do the cleanup every week manually, now that the Promotions + Social tabs were gone.

I do not know if Yahoo is aggressive on features. But I am pretty sure it isn’t aggressive on data-collection.

And when it comes to deleting unread emails, 35000+ is 3.5 times more than 10000.

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Pen Magnet

Written by

Startup writer, Programmer, Tech Career Blogger, Education Engagement Enthusiast

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Pen Magnet

Written by

Startup writer, Programmer, Tech Career Blogger, Education Engagement Enthusiast

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

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