Turns out Google's free e-mail is worth every penny

Last Thursday, someone hacked into one of my two Gmail accounts. He or she sent a message to my contacts saying that I had been mugged in London, lost my money and credit cards, and needed $1,850 to pay my hotel bill. It asked recipients to kindly respond quickly with money so that I did not miss my plane (amazingly, without misspellings).

I was flooded with calls, texts and e-mails (on my other account) checking on my safety, an inadvertent upside to the hacking on an otherwise dreary day spent changing passwords on bank accounts and other sensitive items that might have been compromised should the crook have chosen to cull through the 3,000 plus e-mails in my inbox.

Google shut down my account, but the company will not reinstate access to it. The algorithm it uses to assess responses to an ownership questionnaire decided I can't provide enough information. Things Google wanted to know included the day I opened my account, services I used from Google linked to that account and whether or not I had been referred to open an account and by whom. I could answer only some of the questions.

After three tries filling out the questionnaire, I am almost resigned to losing the information built over four years since opening the account. It included hundreds of letters to family and friends that I wanted to keep as a record of our lives. They are as precious to me as the hundreds of handwritten letters I keep, as I was never one of those people who stopped using punctuation and grammar when the Internet arrived.

Part of me is incredibly angry at Google, as the company provides no people to deal with fraud, just computer programs. But the other part of me is incredibly angry at myself for trusting a company that provides a free service with anything remotely precious.

It also made me think about the power Google now exercises over my life and our collective lives: storing our histories, facilitating new relationships, analyzing how our minds work through its search engine and directing our purchases and worldview through the order of its search rankings.

Of course, we can always reject Google's offerings. But how many of us do? Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler writes in "The End of Overeating" that fast food companies engineer us to overindulge. They know that once we eat certain foods, body chemistry makes it almost impossible for people to retain self control.

In the same way, Google has made it almost impossible for users to get out of its grip. Promises of lifetime free storage and an easily searchable format mean you will never get rid of a Google e-mail account — and everything else linked to it, including photo and video storage, blogs, news, maps … To think it all started with what still looks like a bare-bones search engine.

Microsoft used to be considered wicked for monopolizing how we use our computers, something for which we paid. What Google does is to not only analyze how and why we think, but also to influence what we think in the first place. Could it have done that without being free?

Psychology tells us we do not value things that are free as much as something we pay for. So maybe we weren't as vigilant in questioning Google's gradual intrusion — and that of other search engines — into our lives as we would have been if we had paid for its services.

But we have become a nation of people who expect something for nothing. Census data show about half of Americans live in a house that receives some type of government benefit. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, 45 percent of Americans do not pay federal income taxes. All but a few newspapers are free online.

Was I really being co-opted by a thousand e-mails? I don't know. But losing my account made me realize I must pay for one. Expecting something for nothing ruins friendships, marriages and society, as the financial collapse showed. In the case of search engines, it also provides a wealth of free personal information to a company whose motto is "Don't be evil" but whose technology makes it very possible.

Thank you, Google, for making me realize it's cheaper — and less evil — to pay for e-mail than to accept yours.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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