Google dodges bullet over Gmail scanning



A ruling this week means Google will have a much easier job of defending claims that it broke the law by scanning Gmail accounts.

A range of people had looked to sue Google over the way it used automated scanning of messages both to produce targeted advertising that appears at the top of the inbox, and to gather information for wider profiles of the user’s online activity. While the scanning is hardly a secret, those bringing the claims suggested it broke state and federal laws on privacy and even wiretapping.

The various cases were diverse with some covering Gmail users themselves while others affected people using other email services who sent messages to Gmail users.

Lawyers had hoped to combine the various cases into a class action suit. That would have made for one hell of a high stakes case given that the suit was calling for $100 a day compensation for each affected user, whether or not they’d lent their name to a case.

Realistically that number had no hope of becoming a reality. Given that Google was claiming to have more than 400 million Gmail users back in 2012, even a conservative estimate of 100 million US users now (with no payouts for people on other services) would mean more than $3 trillion for each year Google was judged to have broken the law.

Such calculations are now irrelevant thanks to Judge Lucy Koh (pictured) of the US District Court in California dismissing the class action request. She said there was simply too much variety in the extent to which individual claimants did or didn’t know about and/or consent to their emails being scanned, which would be a key issue in any trial. She noted that “There is a panoply of sources from which email users could have learned of Google’s interceptions.”

The ruling was made with prejudice, meaning it would have to be taken into account by a judge considering a future attempt to bring a class action case over the Gmail issue.

It doesn’t affect the ability of any individual to bring a case by themselves, or the potential outcome of such a case. However, anyone doing so would have to fund the case themselves. If they did win a victory, any damages award would only apply to them, though the verdict could be cited in similar cases.

While Koh’s verdict only has force in the Gmail case, it may mean other judges are less likely to agree to class action suits in cases involving email scanning by other providers.

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