New GMail Ads Accused of Violating CAN-SPAM Act



Google recently rolled out a major update to its popular GMail email service. The new
interface features a tabbed inbox that separates emails into one of several categories including Social, Forums, Updates and Promotions, and that Promotions tab is sparking a lot of debate over Google’s practice of putting ads at the top of the message list there.

The problem is that those ads look like actual emails, including the ability to forward them to others. The question some security and e-marketing experts have however is whether those ads conform to CAN-SPAM requirements and provide a way for users to unsubscribe from them. Since they are formatted to look exactly like emails, legally they are supposed to-but would Google’s advertisers appreciate users being able to do so? There’s no clear answer yet and that’s why some security experts are saying the company may very well be in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act. The accusations are being fueled by the latest attack ad in Microsoft’s anti-Google campaign known as “Scroogled”. The campaign was launched last year and while it’s supposed to be ad campaign for the email service, a direct competitor to GMail, it’s become almost a bully pulpit for Microsoft as the ads spend most of their time attacking GMail rather than marketing

Google hasn’t had any comment on the debate yet. It will be interesting to see what, if anything comes of it. Do you use GMail? Do you find the ads in the Promotions tab misleading? Have you tried to unsubscribe from them? Please share your experiences with us and let us know if you think this is a legit concern or much ado about nothing.

Written by Sue Walsh


  1. Maria Ortiz · August 16, 2013

    On one hand, ads are the price for a free email service. On the other, if the advertisers are paying for PPC, they are also screwed because of the probable high number of mistaken clicks – i.e. the user clicked an ad not because he or she was interested in it but because he or she became confused this is an email. In either case, the most ethical approach to me is to make ads look very different from emails – this might bring less in PPC revenue but neither users, nor advertisers are screwed.

  2. Dion · August 24, 2013

    This kind of saddens me because I’m an avid Gmail user. I like the combination of technology and simplicity. In other words, it doesn’t dumb you down. So far, I can’t see them, or perhaps I wasn’t just paying too much attention. Either way, if this claim is true, then perhaps it’s one of the reasons why they decided to add the Promotions tab in their new design.

  3. Mariska · August 26, 2013

    I use Gmail and have had to contend with the changes in the interface. I was caught by surprise as I did not receive any notice or email about such changes. At first, I found it cool. My emails were sorted out for me. Later on, however, it got kind of irritating. I guess it’s mostly because I want to see what’s in my inbox the instant I open my Gmail. I haven’t encountered anything suspicious, but it’s not a guarantee that I won’t get spam. It’s a good thing, though, that I don’t really open the ads sent to me unless I know the sender.

  4. Crystal · August 31, 2013

    @Mariska: That’s interesting, Mariska. At my end, the changes in the interface didn’t happen all of a sudden. You first have to agree to such change before the layout completely changes. You can also choose which tabs to add, as well as revert to your previous Gmail design if you think the new one is complicated.

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