Why It May Not Be A Bad Thing That Gmail Will Automatically Display Images In Messages

For better or worse,  Anissa Chan and other Gmail users will never have to click "Display Images Below" again.

For better or worse, Anissa Chan and other Gmail users will never have to click “Display Images Below” again.

If you have a Gmail account, you’re more than familiar with opening a commercial e-mail that looks like a strange wireframe with no images. Then you click “Display images below” and the blanks get filled in and (hopefully) it all makes much more sense. Google announced today that it will now automatically load these images, which is a move that has its pros and cons.

• These images are currently hosted by third-party servers, and when you choose to load the images it can give e-mail marketers all sorts of information about you. Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo explains:

Marketers get a rough idea of your location via your IP address. They can see the HTTP referrer, meaning the URL of the page that requested the image. With the referral data, marketers can see not only what client you are using (desktop app, Web, mobile, etc.) but also what folder you were viewing the e-mail in… It’s even possible to uniquely identify each e-mail, so marketers can tell which e-mail address requested the images—they know that you’ve read the e-mail. And if it was spam, this will often earn you more spam since the spammers can tell you’ve read their last e-mail.

Instead, Google will cache all of these e-mail images on its own servers, meaning that the e-mail reader’s info is not transmitted back to the e-mail marketer just for loading images in an e-mail.

• Because Google is caching these images, the e-mails should load faster than when they had to pull from slower, third-party servers.

• It also takes away the hassle of having to click “Display images.”

• While you may not be providing as much data to e-mail marketers, you are making Google, the web’s largest online ad operator, even more of an active presence in your inbox. Granted, Google’s quiet scanning of your e-mails is something that longtime Gmail users are probably used to seeing in the form of contextual ads based on the content of their e-mails, or package tracking modules that not only know you’ve got an e-mail about an en route UPS package, but also know the tracking number. Gmail is not where you want to be if you want true privacy.

• Google is also getting rid of the “Display images” step for mobile users. For many people, this isn’t a huge deal as such images rarely eat up too much data. But for people with small data caps, or who are roaming internationally, every kilobyte counts.

• How to put this politely… There are some e-mails that may contain images that one might not want to load automatically, lest some passerby sees a screen full of naked flesh. It’s usually easy enough to avoid opening these in public situations (we’ve heard), but surely someone will unwittingly open a Spam porn message on their office computer or while using their phone on the train. Until now, those images would remain hidden thanks to the “Display images” default, but now…

Finally, and this is neither a pro nor con for consumers, but we expect to see a legal challenge from e-mail marketers whose products will suddenly be devalued thanks to the lack of data they will be able to mine from their messages. While Google is talking up this change as a pro-consumer move, marketers may charge that the company is overstepping its bounds and caching these images to unfairly harm competitors.

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