Congressman Louis Gohmert Really Has No Clue How Gmail Works

Louie Gohmert
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was first passed in 1986, when the thought of storing an electronic message online for any length of time must have seemed absurd. So Congress, in its foresight, gave law enforcement incredibly easy access to emails older than 180 days old. No search warrant is needed, nor is the consent of the user. All that's required for police to pore over one's saved or forgotten messages is an easily obtained subpoena.

That's become a real concern of late as the government has seized upon this as an investigative tool as cloud-based Internet services like Gmail have become ubiquitous. Congress is finally looking at closing the loophole. The House Judiciary Committee had a hearing on the matter Tuesday.

Representative Louis Gohmert was there, and the perennially batty, occasionally entertaining Tyler Republican voiced additional concerns about government access to email. Here's how Reuters described it:

Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas questioned Google's access to customer email as the company places ads based on words that appear within messages. Google has said its automated scanners identify key words but do not disclose actual information about the user or message content to advertisers.

Gohmert wondered whether the federal government could request information on users whose emails or searches contain particular words. Google's Salgado rejected such possibility.

But two short paragraphs does not capture the mind-boggling stupidity of Gohmert's questions. For that, we turn to the words of Gohmert himself, which were carefully transcribed by TechDirt. Reading the exchange is sort of like listening to your technophobic, conspiracy-minded grandfather try to explain the Internet, an analogy that might help you look past the dismaying fact that this technophobic, conspiracy-minded fellow is a duly elected U.S. Congressman.

Rep. Gohmert: I was curious. Doesn't Google sell information acquired from emails to different vendors so that they can target certain individuals with their promotions?

Lawyer: Uh, no, we don't sell email content. We do have a system -- similar to the system we have for scanning for spam and malware -- that can identify what type of ads are most relevant to serve on email messages. It's an automated process. There's no human interaction. Certainly, the email is not sold to anybody or disclosed.

Gohmert: So how do these other vendors get our emails and think that we may be interested in the products they're selling.

Lawyer: They don't actually get your email. What they're able to do is through our advertising business be able to identify keywords that they would like to trigger the display of one of their ads, but they don't get information about who the user is or any...

Gohmert: Well that brings me back. So they get information about keywords in our emails that they use to decide who to send promotions to, albeit automatically done. Correct?

Lawyer: The email context is used to identify what ads are most relevant to the user...

Gohmert: And do they pay for the right or the contractual ability to target those individuals who use those keywords?

Lawyer: I might phrase that slightly differently, but the gist is correct, that advertisers are able to bid for the placement of advertisements to users, where our system has detected might be interested in the advertisement.

Gohmert: OK, so what would prevent the federal government from making a deal with Google, so they could also "Scroogle" people, and say "I want to know everyone who has ever used the term 'Benghazi'" or "I want everyone who's ever used... a certain term." Would you discriminate against the government, or would you allow the government to know about all emails that included those words?

Lawyer [confounded look] Uh... sir, I think those are apples and oranges. I think the disclosure of the identity...

Gohmert: I'm not asking for a fruit comparison. I'm just asking would you be willing to make that deal with the government? The same one you do with private advertisers, so that the government would know which emails are using which words.

Lawyer: Thank you, sir. I meant by that, that it isn't the same deal that's being suggested there.

Gohmert: But I'm asking specifically if the same type of deal could be made by the federal government? ... But if that same government will spend tens of thousands to do a commercial, they might, under some hare-brained idea like to do a deal to get all the email addresses that use certain words. Couldn't they make that same kind of deal that private advertisers do?

Lawyer: We would not honor a request from the government for such a...

Gohmert: So you would discriminate against the government if they tried to do what your private advertisers do?

Lawyer: I don't think that describes what private advertisers...

Gohmert: OK, does anybody here have any -- obviously, you're doing a good job protecting your employer -- but does anybody have any proposed legislation that would assist us in what we're doing?

Gohmert: I would be very interested in any phrase, any clauses, any items that we might add to legislation, or take from existing legislation, to help us deal with this problem. Because I am very interested and very concerned about our privacy and our email.

Gohmert: And just so the simpletons that sometimes write for the Huffington Post understand, I don't want the government to have all that information.

Rep. Sensenbrenner: For the point of personal privilege, my son writes for the Huffington Post.

Gohmert: Well then maybe he's not one of the simpletons I was referring to.

Sensenbrenner: He does have a PhD.

Bravo, Congressman. Bravo.

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55 comments
merl.allen
merl.allen topcommenter

Does he ever allow anyone to answer his nonsensical questions? And how do people keep from laughing at him?

luv2garden5
luv2garden5

The man is an embarrassment to Congress.

There must be a more intelligent man to send to Congress from Texas, right???

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

Everybody here bashing Gohmert. I don't get it. The one time in his entire political career he happens to be right.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

For those pf you who think Representative Gohmert was sniffing under the wrong tree, I suggest a brief online search for Google's intricate dance with the government of China. You could Google it.

Scott M. Lieberman
Scott M. Lieberman

I understand the subtle difference. He was referring to capability.

Michelle Sowa Scott
Michelle Sowa Scott

the point is that Gohmert was asking to make a deal to buy identities/emails that used certain keywords because "that's the deal advertisers are getting" and that's absolutely NOT the deal advertisers are getting - I know this personally, from several different perspectives, as I've worked as an advertiser in this business for over a decade and I've also worked for Google. Adwords has been around for a too long a time for someone even remotely associated with internet privacy not to understand exactly how it works.

Scott M. Lieberman
Scott M. Lieberman

And you know this how? They have huge facilities now in several parts of the world for just such storage. It is from that database that you search when you google something. It is from that db that they generate the user targeted ads. That they don't usually access that data, or refuse to access it does not mean that it is not there and available. The potential violation of privacy and constitutional rights, was exactly to the point of Ghomert's line of questioning.

Toasty Ryder
Toasty Ryder

Not really, because google isn't storing that information, the bots are just serving ads based on keywords. And you're talking about assembling a database of users who happened to use particular keywords? Huge violation of privacy and constitutional rights.

Scott M. Lieberman
Scott M. Lieberman

He was however absolutely correct. Google can, if they wanted to identify the owners of emails by certain key words. That they might refuse to do so to the gov't is conjecture at best by their lawyer. Apparently he has a better idea about gmail then DO wishes to give him credit for. Those rubes !

Jamie Sims
Jamie Sims

"In the Realms of the Unreal" wouldn't have been big enough to capture Gohmert Pyle's mind-boggling stupidity.

Kram Nalpak
Kram Nalpak

"Gohmert: And just so the simpletons that sometimes write for the Huffington Post understand, I don't want the government to have all that information. Rep. Sensenbrenner: For the point of personal privilege, my son writes for the Huffington Post. Gohmert: Well then maybe he's not one of the simpletons I was referring to. Sensenbrenner: He does have a PhD."

redneck3
redneck3

Oh- for those wondering why the people of Tyler and its rural environs don't vote for someone else... in 2010 Gohmert was the MOST LIBERAL of the four candidates for TX-CD1. In 2012 he did have a Democratic challenger... a mostly paper candidate who, going by her website, was almost as conservative and incoherent as Gohmert. Being a Democrat, a woman, and African-American, she managed to get 27% of the vote in a deeply racist, sexist, and rural portion of the state. Long story short: Gohmert wins because no better candidate ever comes forward, not necessarily because he's beloved.

redneck3
redneck3

On the one hand, yes, Gohmert is astoundingly stupid- apparently not knowing what "apples and oranges" means. 

On the other hand... what, exactly, DOES prevent Google from selling the email addresses of people who search for XYZ, or whose emails contain ABC? As I see it, not much- and, if CISPA goes through, nothing at all.

For possibly the only time in his life, Gohmert's heart is in the right place. It's a pity his brain is AWOL.

bndleder
bndleder

Does Tyler/Longview not have anyone with a brain to put in congress? Or does Gohmert truly represent what they are and how they think ? Scary !

resams72
resams72

He doesn't understand how government works either.. seems to be a consistent problem with him.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

Stupidity of Congressman no match for opacity of lawyer.

Anon
Anon

The headline is three words too long.

muddystick
muddystick

A small teabag could hold the collective intelligence of Gohmert, Poe, Nuegebauer, Williams, Carter, Farenthold, and Marchant - among others in the Texas GOP congressional delegation.  They are a constant embarrassment to each and every Texas high school dropout. 

bradford.pearson
bradford.pearson

"I'm not asking for a fruit comparison." New. Favorite. Phrase.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Really, how is Google scanning the emails to look for certain words in order to place an ad on someones webpage not very scary and atrocious?


Google is a very scary company.  I wonder if Google would let me scan their emails in order to look for certain keywords so that I can make economic decisions?

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@Cris Hendrix But that's precisely the point, Cris. We don't know what Google does or how it dos it or what it does with what it may or may not collect. Think Google isn't almost pathologically secretive? Read Andrew Blum's "Tubes."

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@redneck3For those of you who think Representative Gohmert was sniffing under the wrong tree, I suggest a brief online search for Google's intricate dance with the government of China. You could Google it.

Sollitaire
Sollitaire

@redneck3 Because that's not how google works. Google does not identify the users to the advertisers. No personal information is used in pairing keywords with advertisements.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@bmarvel 

That lawyer didn't even have a chance, or a reason to be opaque - Gohmert already had the water so muddy, there was no need for it. The lawyer was as dumbfounded as the rest of us by his questions. Gohmert did his job for him.

Incidentally, I'm not defending Google, their gaggle of lawyers or their business model.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul yeah, someone should have told Gomert that Google already does that for the gov't, but for the NSA.  And, he's not supposed to talk about that.   The levels of stupidity and ignorance he displays is astonishing.

Sharon_Moreanus
Sharon_Moreanus topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul it's not how. It's who uses.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@merl.allen So you're confident our government would never spy on its citizens?

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@TheCredibleHulk No. What's frightening is that Gohmert's basic questions, though awkwardly put received no meaningful answer. Nor are likely to receive an answer.

I'm surprised by the reaction on this forum, where folks are usually a little less willing to trust big octopus-like corporations with their tentacles deep into our private lives. Yes, Gohmert can be a blue-ribbon fool. But even fools sometimes can sniff smoke in the wind.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@scottindallas Not nearly as astonishing as the connivance and privacy-bashing of Google.

But apparently everybody's online behavior here is choirboy-pure. Nothing to fear. That must be why everybody blogs under a pseudonym. (Remind me to tell you some day how easy it is to dig beneath those pseudonyms.)     

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@LarryStCroix Kinda agree and kinda don't. Which is more dangerous to our freedom: Dim-witted state reps, or slick corporate lawyers  paid to throw up smoke screens around the questionable doings of an information near-monopoly?

LarryStCroix
LarryStCroix

@bmarvel Gohmert and wind is a whole other old pile of stupid. This is the man who wanted to ban wind-power a few years back because it would use up all the wind and then people would get too hot.  Really. Don't encourage Louis to start sniffing. Please.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@bmarvel 

Yes, that too, is frightening.

My point here was that although Gohmert's nose is working properly and has caught a whiff of something untoward, he hasn't got the intellectual wherewithal to really see it through, and, as redneck pointed out above, that is the best that TX-CD can come up with.

Doubly frightening.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@mattwolfgang If the bland assurances of a corporate lawyer that you have absolutely nothing to worry about when a world-spanning information behemoth that knows your every move on the internet and that has an established record of cooperation with government authorities (and not just ours, either) can be trusted to safeguard your privacy make you feel better, then you're a very docile citizen, wolfgang. The very model of an unsuspicious customer. 

Black helicopters are passe when someone can pluck you bare with a click of the mouse.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@TheCredibleHulk Seriously,Hulk. just how realistic is your answer? Google has deliberately made itself ubiquitous.all but indispensable to anyone who uses "the intertubes." (and who can afford not to?) But it's almost impossible for its users to find out exactly what information about them Google is collecting, how it s being used and why. Does this not raise the faintest alarm somewhere deep in your bosom? 

If a nutcase state rep from the hinterlands is willing to go after them, even if in a stumbly-bumbly manner, I say, right-wing or left-wing, God speed.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@PersistentID2345 And because they cooperated with the Chinese government in its campaign against dissidents, which gives some idea of how cozy Google might get with the FBI or NSA should those agencies get interested in your or my online activities.

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