A draft bill in the pipeline at California's state legislature could block Google's plan to offer web-surfers a free email service -- branded Gmail -- in return for their consent to receive targeted ads [WAMN: 05-Apr-04].

The ads would be triggered by key words gathered by scanning users' emails. A message might, for example, refer to a medical condition thereby sparking ads for a relevant pharmaceutical product. Surfers' personal information and interests would be held on a massive database for future use by advertisers.

Avers the bill's sponsor Senator Liz Figueroa (Democrat, Fremont): "It's invasion of privacy … [like] having a massive billboard in the middle of your home." Her view echoes that of other privacy campaigners.

Objectors to the concept extend acrosss the Atlantic. In the UK, lobby group Privacy International has already filed a complaint about Gmail with the Data Protection Commissioner.

In a statement issued this week Google assured it intends to work with data protection authorities across Europe to ensure concerns are resolved. It says the content of users' email would remain private because the process is fully automated.

But despite privacy concerns, Gmail has its attractions. Not only is it free, it offers users a massive storage and retrieval facility for their email archives -- the equivalent of 500,000 pages of email per subscriber. Google also claims the service offers enhanced spam filtering.

The privately held company plans an initial public offering later this year which -- assuming the flotation is not undermined by privacy issues or legislation -- is expected to value Google at up to $25 billion (€20.96bn; £13.76bn), ahead of listed online retailer Amazon.

Data sourced from: BBC Online Business News (UK); additional content by WARC staff