As a liberal, I believe that the government is a useful means of addressing various social problems, but that doesn’t keep me from being disgusted by politics most of the time. California state senator Liz Figueroa has drafted legislation that would block Gmail because of the way advertising is presented. Senator Figueroa compares the advertising to “having a massive billboard in the middle of your home.” I have no problem with valid criticisms of Gmail, like the complaints about accessibility, or the worries about Google correlating your email with your search requests, but to complain about the advertising in Gmail is just idiotic. Google is providing a service that they plan to fund by selling ads. This is, after all, the most common model of doing business on the Web. Let’s compare Google’s advertising to advertising in another popular webmail client.

Having opened Yahoo mail, I see five ads, and I don’t see a list of messages in my in box. Opening my in box, I see five more ads. Having opened an individual message, again, five more ads. I have no idea whether any of these ads are based on the content of my email messages, but I’m assuming not. All 15 of the ads I’ve seen have been graphical, and 3 of them have included animation. I just emptied my bulk mail folder, and again, 5 more ads, one of which is the largest I’ve ever seen.

Now I open Gmail. I am immediately taken to the in box. No ads are displayed. I click on another folder … again, no ads. I click on an individual message. In a narrow column on the right, I see a list of “Sponsored Links,” and also links to two related pages. Tell me about that billboard in my living room again?

The bottom line is that this is not a political issue. If Google requires users to accept some terms of service and then violates that contract, it becomes a political issue, but I think that consumers can decide whether the “cost” of letting Google scan messages to provide relevant sponsored links is less than the value provided by their email client. If not, there are plenty of competitors out there that you can use for free, or, if you prefer, pay for.

Update: Mat has a lot more on how the Gmail ads work (with screen shots).