In the company’s own words:
“When you use the new Yahoo! Mail Beta our computer systems detect certain words and phrases (we call them ‘keywords’) within your messages. This might result in ads being shown to you in Mail for products and services that are related to those keywords. In addition, these keywords may contribute to the interest categories we assign to your browser for interest-based ads that we show throughout the Yahoo! Ad Network. No additional ads are shown to you, just more relevant ads.”
I’m torn over the privacy implications. I understand Yahoo! is offering a valuable service with its mail product and has every right to claim this data (users have every right to use a different email service that does not use email data for ad targeting, or simply opt out). Unlike Google, Yahoo is a portal — it’s almost a social network, except content-driven. Thinking about it that way, however, can you imagine the reaction if Facebook attempted to scan messages for targeting keywords?
In Shelly Palmer’s “Zen in the Art of Digital Privacy” (which is a great call to personal responsibility for social Internet users), he comments, “[Y]ou can’t be ‘a little pregnant’ or ‘a little dead.’ Information simply can’t be, ‘a little private.’” But I’ll argue that email can be a little private, certainly not as private as its physical counterpart. Email could be called the last bastion of Internet privacy, and Yahoo! is threatening to knock it down with Yahoo! Mail Beta. I personally do not want advertising targeted to me based on my email (I’ve come to tolerate in-client ads, considering it a tradeoff for such a useful service), but I won’t speak for all Internet users.
Coincidentally, I was reading Palmer’s “Zen” article via his email newsletter, and Google served an ad above it for a “Free Spirituality Webinar.” I’ve noted many times that email ads based on content scanning are more laugh-worthy than creepy. So how good is Yahoo!’s scanning? How well can the natural language engine understand interests and categorize them? Search cues show intent, but email cues are far harder to analyze.
In other words, is such data useful enough to justify the online privacy crapstorm that’s about to rain on Yahoo?