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.
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.