Much like Google, Microsoft also scans your email

March 5, 2013: 4:03 PM ET

Microsoft's ads make Google's email scanning sound sinister, but its own scanning - to block spam - isn't much different.

130305155604-scroogled-340xaFORTUNE -- Microsoft's anti-Google "Scroogled" campaign is based largely on the contention that rival Google "goes through" private email in order to target ads at users based on keywords. And that's technically true. It's also technically true that Microsoft, too, "goes through" private email, though its intent is different: Microsoft's Outlook.com email service runs scans not to target ads, but to block spam.

Still, the scanning itself isn't really much different. For Stefan Weitz, Microsoft's (MSFT) senior director of online services, this is all a matter of "semantics." The intent of Google's (GOOG) "going through" email is what makes that "going through" a bad thing, compared to Microsoft's "going through," which is entirely benign, he said in an interview Tuesday.

It can be argued that Google's intent to target ads is just as benign as Microsoft's intent to prevent spam. Clearly, Microsoft doesn't think so, and it cites surveys showing that most people don't even realize that Google targets ads at them based on what they've written in emails, and that when they learn this is the case, many of them are appalled.

But the campaign is heavily focused on the scanning part, which makes Google's targeting sound sinister. It also makes it sound a little bit like Google employees, rather than computer algorithms, are doing the scanning.

MORE: YouTube to launch music streaming service, take on Spotify

"In the most general sense of the word, the 'scan' is the same," in both cases, Weitz allows. But, he says, the intent makes all the difference. Also, he contends, Google isn't nearly "transparent" enough about what it does with the information it collects, either from searches or from email. Further, he argues, while Microsoft's scans look for keywords that are red flags for spam (he cited "penis enlargement" as one possibility), Google is looking for all manner of keywords for ad-targeting.

Fair enough, though there has been a mighty backlash against the Scroogled campaign. Weitz says it doesn't matter much, since the people doing the lashing are mostly people in a "bubble" -- technology workers and journalists. "Everyday people," he claims, are fine with the campaign, because it lets them know something that many of them didn't: that Google's software "reads" their emails to target ads at them.

Last week, the San Francisco public-media outlet KQED reported, based on an interview with Weitz, that the Scroogled campaign is over. It's not. Weitz attributes the misinformation to a misunderstanding between him and the reporter. (Fortune, like many other publications, cited KQED's erroneous story.) He says he meant only that the Scroogled TV spots are over for now and that Microsoft is moving on to a new phase of the campaign to take on some other aspect of Google to excoriate. He wouldn't say what aspect that might be, but he talked a lot about Google's privacy policies for its search function, so that might be a hint.

MORE: How AOL got its new brand chief

The campaign launched in November. A few weeks ago, it started a petition drive to collect signatures from people opposed to Google's email privacy policies. Microsoft boasts that it has drawn 3.5 million people to the petition site and that 115,000 people have signed it. That amounts to what seems like a rather paltry success rate -- about .03%. Not so, Weitz insists, since once on the site, people must fill out a form. He says the ratio is "pretty good" and is "better than what the White House requires" for its "We the People" initiative.

Google has issued only a single, terse statement in response to the Scroogled campaign: "Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services Google offers free of charge. We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant. No humans read your email or Google account information in order to show you advertisements or related information."

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.