May 21, 2004
Gmail, the controversial free E-mail service that Google Inc. is testing, is such a hot item that users are willing to trade everything from a kidney to medical advice--or pay more than $150--to get their hands on an account.
Gmail, which is available only to a limited number of testers--Google hasn't set a public release data for the service--comes with 1,000 Mbytes of storage space, far more than other free Web-based E-mail services such as Hotmail or Yahoo. It's also drawn the ire of privacy advocates for its plan to scan incoming mail with automated bots, then deliver targeted ads to users. Those downsides haven't deterred thousands of Gmail wannabes from posting pleadings on Sean Michaels' gmailswap.com Web site for an invitation to the service, nor stopped hundreds from selling invitations on eBay. Michaels, 22, and a recent graduate in cultural science from McGill College in Montreal, has created a site where people can beg for a Gmail account--current users of Gmail sometimes are allowed to invite others to the service--or swap something in exchange. He took the site live on Monday and already it boasts thousands of posts. "I think the biggest thing is that they've been told it's a hot commodity," he says of the demand for Gmail accounts, "and they don't want to be left in the dust." One desperate poster offered to trade a kidney for an account. "Kidney will be delivered in cooler (yours to keep!) on a date specified by you. You pay shipping," wrote the poster. Other swap offers were less creative, but also a lot less disturbing. One writer claimed he was Marc Marcuse, who was a contestant on NBC's reality show Average Joe, and begged for an account, saying that he deserved one because "NBC never paid us a dime." A recent medical-school graduate even promised to dispense "unlimited medical advice on any subject/symptom/disease of interest." "I created gmailswap.com in response to the crass commercialization on eBay," Michaels says. "Buying an account was the only option, and I thought that ran contrary to Google giving away the service. There are nice people out there. And I thought nice people would help nice people." Hundreds of Gmail accounts and invitations are up for sale on eBay. As of Friday, nearly 300 Gmail accounts were listed on the online auction site. Earlier auctions of Gmail accounts have closed at more than $150. Gmail's terms of agreement don't explicitly forbid trading or selling accounts, and when asked for his take on the practice, a Google spokesman declined comment. "We have no statement on that," he said. But plenty of Gmail users--and wannabe users--seem to. At least until Google rolls out the real version. Promises Michaels, "When that happens, gmailswap.com will just go to sleep."
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