Starting last year, Google began to increase(new window) the number of ads displayed in Gmail. It started with more ads in the Promotions tab on mobile. And now it has grown to include advertising messages between regular emails on Gmail’s desktop site.
Gmail users have noticed. “Adding an ad into the MIDDLE of my email inbox is NOT COOL,” said one(new window). Seeming to acknowledge this creepy and invasive practice, Gmail itself replied on Twitter, “That doesn’t sound good, Catheryn.”
Google appears to be littering its products with ads to make up for steady losses in ad revenue over recent quarters. Revenue at the company grew only 1%(new window) in the last quarter of 2023, compared with 32% the year prior. Ad revenue suffered a 4% decline.
The inbox takeover by Google’s ad department illustrates the centrality of ads in the company’s business model. The primary way they make money is by spying on people and profiting from what they learn.
In reality, there are other ways to profitably provide online services that respect people’s privacy and promote democracy and innovation. This article explains what’s wrong with Google’s business model and suggests an alternative that puts people first.
The problem with Google’s ads
Advertising is not itself a problem. Ads are a useful tool to introduce new ideas and products into the marketplace.
The problem is when advertising and ad revenue become ends in themselves, justifying a business model based on surveillance. That’s what’s happening at Google. The company has built the largest ad display network in the history of the world, and it has combined this with the largest mass surveillance network to gather intimate data on virtually everyone.
There are several ways this can harm you and the rest of society:
- Violations of privacy — Google and other tech companies are heavily incentivized to scrape your online activities for data that can be valuable as levers for advertisers to target you. For Google, all your movements, photos, and jotted thoughts are fair game. Google isn’t actually free; you pay with your privacy.
- Political manipulation — Your data is valuable not just to Google but to politicians hoping to manipulate you. There are multiple dangers when surveillance and politics mix.
- Government intrusions — As a byproduct of Google’s surveillance tech, government authorities now can also gain access to the company’s database. Through warrants or less accountable methods, governments around the world, particularly the United States, rely on Google and other tech companies to bolster their ability to peer into citizens’ private lives.
- Poor user experience — Ads aren’t just annoying. Free, ad-based online services are built to satisfy the customers (advertisers), not to provide new and useful technology for actual people. The people are the product being sold.
How Google collects your data
In the early days of Gmail, ads were rampant, and the company scoured users’ inboxes for data to inform the mix of ads they showed you.
While Google no longer scans users’ emails for ads, they still do scan them and retain access to your inbox. Additionally, by using Gmail and remaining logged in to your Google account, your identity is associated with everything else you do while using Google products, including Search, Maps, YouTube, and more. Google keeps a dossier on its billions of users sourced from a dizzying number of sources.
- Google searches
- Videos you watch
- Voice and audio information
- Purchase activity
- GPS location and other sensor data from your device
- IP address
- Activity on Google services, such as places you label like home or work
- Views and interactions with content and ads
- People with whom you communicate or share content
- Activity on third-party sites and apps that use Google services
- Chrome browsing history you’ve synced with your Google Account
All this data is compiled and used to show you ads that may appear in your Gmail account, among your personal messages.
There’s another important harm associated with the Big Tech model. Google and other ad-tech companies use their market dominance to crush competitors who could introduce products that serve people better than they do.
We’ve written extensively about this. Apple and Google are some of the worst offenders, using their monopoly in app distribution to obstruct new products and drive up the prices you pay for software.
The latest instance of this is Big Tech’s interference with trade negotiations for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, in which their lobbyists are attempting to subvert democratic oversight.
But Google isn’t just blocking innovation in the broader market. Dependent on ad revenue, it has also stagnated internally, favoring ideas that generate the most revenue as quickly as possible.
Even where Google is pushing ahead with new technology, its business model isn’t changing. As The Verge noted(new window), “Google is still experimenting with how to put ads into the AI snapshots, though rest assured, they’re coming. Google’s going to need to monetize the heck out of AI for any of this to stick.”
For Google, if the question is revenue, the answer is ads.
Ad-free for privacy
There are other business models. In fact, the first commercialization of the internet was based on subscriptions, e-commerce, and simple display advertising.
Over the past decade, people have begun to push back against surveillance-based web services. New businesses have emerged with products focusing on privacy, online security, and respect for free market principles.
Proton is one of those companies, founded in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal to help people protect the privacy of their communications. We’re not only ad-free, but we deliberately collect as little data about our users as possible. Proton protects your emails, calendar events, files stored in the cloud, passwords and login credentials, and your entire internet connection(new window) with end-to–end encryption. Because of our security architecture, not even Proton can see your data.
While Google develops new ways to learn more about you, we’re developing more advanced security and encryption techniques to thwart data-hungry hackers and governments.
It’s free to get a Proton Account. We make money solely from our community through subscriptions. You can optionally upgrade for advanced features, extra storage, and to support our mission to build a new paradigm on the internet based on privacy.
Google and other ad-tech companies are out of ideas. That’s why they’re pulling harder on the revenue levers they’ve become addicted to. But that won’t work forever.
Powered by your choices, the old internet is giving way to a new one that protects, rather than profits from, your private data.