Sunday, November 29, 2009

Google Anti-Spam Policy Hurts Poor / Disabled Most

Google has decided to fight against spam emails by making it much more difficult to sign up for a Gmail account. The idea they came up with was to require a person signing up for an email to give a cell-phone number with texting capabilities. Google would then text you a password which you can use to activate your account. This allows Google to make it much more difficult for automated systems to set up accounts and by limiting the number of accounts per cell-phone number spammers will have trouble staying in business. A rather ingenious solution, but one designed with the western world in mind.

For me - a non-cell phone user - it's annoying. The solution recommended by Google is to ask a friend if I can have the password sent to their phone. I don't want to do it, but if I need to I can get around the problem. After all, I can't complain too loudly considering Gmail is free and offers invaluable services to users.

But, what about those millions of people who do not own cell phones or do not have friends with cell phones either? There are thousands of people whose only access to the internet is on shared computers in public libraries, community centers and job-bank agencies who could benefit immensely from free email service as they search for jobs or to connect with friends and family.

What about people in third-world countries who may have access to a community computer, but may never have seen a cell phone with texting capabilities? One of the greatest things about the internet has been the ability for people from all walks of life all over the world to access information and services that had previously only been available to the rich.

What about my blind grandfather, who is an avid computer user, but obviously has no use for texting? I hate to stereotype, but I'm pretty sure if he were to ask his friends at the retirement home, he'd be hard-pressed to find anyone texting their grandchildren who he could ask for help from to get onto Gmail.

I can appreciate Google wants to cut down on spam and that people in third world countries, on government assistance or the blind probably don't bring in as much revenue as your average upper/middle class Google user, but the whole policy strikes me as anti-social and poorly thought out. Gmail was an opportunity for those unable to pay for expensive services such as cell phone plans. And it's an opportunity that's being denied them by a company that so often takes the lead in making information and services available to the world.

I'll be keeping my eye on this policy and I hope to see changes soon:

You can see the "Help" page to see for yourself just how inaccessible this policy is.


William J. Turkel said...

Adam, about 60% of the people in the world have cell phones, many of them in developing countries. See, e.g.,

Mike Cosgrave said...

It also means they have your cell number, linked to your gmail and other services in their database. Go fi$ure!

Adam Crymble said...

Bill, the issue isn't whether there are cell phones in the third world, it's a matter of networks. The people who don't have cell phones are less likely to have friends or family with them either.
It takes what used to be a free service and adds an expensive, unrelated requirement as a terms of use so that, as Mike says, Google can have more information about you.

KLL said...

You know, I heard this last week. Seemed a little odd, so I clicked out of my email, then signed up for a new Gmail account to test it.

There wasn't even a field to put in my cell phone number. I've seen horrified accounts of people it prompted for this information, but it didn't prompt me.

Have they not rolled this out yet? Are they only doing it sometimes? Did it see that I had a cookie set, and thus decided I was somehow okay even without the cell phone verification?

Adam Crymble said...

KLL, I have a feeling that like with most things by Google, they phase them in slowly, randomly trying it on some users to see how it works.

Sean Kheraj said...

I had to go through the mobile phone text message verification thing too when I set up a new YouTube account. There has to be a better work-around than getting a friend to receive your text for you. I agree with Adam that this is an awkward and cumbersome system. I felt the same way when I needed a text message code to access the wi-fi service at the Library and Archives of Canada.

Some landline services now offer text-to-voice (Telus offers it here in Vancouver). This solution would give non-mobile phone users access to the password and it would be useful for the blind. You should see if your local telephone service provider has text-to-voice functionality.

I would also like to echo Bill's comment. Mobile phone usage and text messaging in some developing countries is far more extensive than North America or Western Europe. In fact, in most developing countries, mobile internet on phones is the dominant form of internet usage. BBC's Digital Planet podcast discusses this a lot in regard to countries like China, India, and Kenya.