Back in the mid 1990s internet bandwidth was scarce and you might have found yourself telling your web browser only to load images upon request. Now that broadband is common, images, video, and other graphics have flooded the internet, and preventing images from loading means preventing a huge chunk of the web from loading.

But there’s one area where images have remained optional for years: Gmail. Up until recently, if Gmail users received email messages containing images, they’d been confronted with a “Display images below” box and an option to always allow images from a specific sender.

Now Google has announced it will show all images by default.

display images

Why the change? Google says it wasn’t disabling images by default to save bandwidth — it was for security reasons. Messages containing images could involve other code that could pose security threats to your PC or mobile device.

As Ars Technica points out, there are also privacy implications – images and other content hosted on remote servers can harvest data about you for marketing (or more nefarious) purposes.

Now instead of serving images directly from external servers, Google will filter everything through its own secure proxy servers. That means every time you view an image in Gmail from now on, it’ll be hosted by Google which means your data won’t go to third parties and you won’t accidentally load any code from remote sites. .

Users should start to notice images enabled by default soon when using the desktop version of Gmail. Mobile users will get the update in early 2014.

If you’d like to disable images, you can go into your Gmail settings and select the option to “ask before displaying external content.”

Oh, and if you’re wondering if there’s any way Google can profit from this move, a lot of bulk email marketers (and spammers too) used pixel tracking images to obtain stats about how many people opened messages, where they’re from, and other data. They may have a harder time selling their services… but you know how Google makes money from its free email service? By selling ads that show up alongside your messages. That option might be a bit more attractive to advertisers now.

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7 replies on “Gmail kills the need to click “display images below””

  1. Classic ruthless GOOG two-fer: they cripple the commercial advantage of email marketers — or spammers if you prefer — while assimilating every Gmail user’s advertiser history into their net-neutral closed-source doomsday vault of Consumer Preferences, the better to pad out the running dossier on every computer user on the globe. It’s reminiscent of their wi-fi-snooping insta-Skyhook system created to bypass telecom-borne geolocation — the bright young lanyard-wearing things in Mountain View had similarly claimed that was all In The Public Interest at the time. Everybody’s a hamster beta testing Goog’s toys for the ultimate benefit of the Big Data mothership’s record room. These guys are good, NSA doesn’t pay them enough

    1. If you’re already using gmail, then it’s safe to assume that google already knows everything you were getting in your email.
      If all this change does is prevent spammers from making as much money, that’s fine with me.

  2. Not sure this will hinder the practice of encoding unique IDs into filenames etc, so that spammers can confirm that a specific message has been opened and therefore that its recipient address is verified. Just because the request comes from a Google IP does not protect from this.

    1. I agree with you, that that is probably true with the way they’re doing things. However, it is theoretically possible to make a system that gets around that. For example, google servers could download the image when the message is received, not when opened. If the recipient address exists, keep the image cached, otherwise discard. From the perspective of the spammer, all images are downloaded as soon as they send an email, and they can’t verify if the address exists or not, or obtain any other useful information.

      1. Agree: in time it will irrevocably poison the spammers’ databases, and render them useless. However the interim effect on end users (until that fact was realised, and from experience spammers are generally pretty pig-sh*t stupid) would be worse, since every tom, dick and harry’s email address would be confirmed and the floodgates opened for even more spam.

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