Google has been hit with a second potential class-action lawsuit for allegedly violating people's privacy by serving contextual ads to users of the 6-year-old Gmail service.
The complaint, filed by Texas resident Kelly Michaels, alleges that Google violates federal wiretap laws by "scanning and capturing the contents of every email sent and received through Google's Web-based email program." Michaels, who has used Gmail since February 2007, additionally argues that Google was "deliberately silent" about the fact that its email program "discovers the 'concepts' and identifies keywords in every private email that every Gmail user sends or receives in order to market and target advertisements."
Google has not yet responded to a request for comment about Michaels' lawsuit. But the company says in an online privacy statement that its scanning process "is completely automated and involves no humans." The company adds: "Neither email content nor any personal information is ever shared with other parties as a result of our ad-targeting process."
This latest lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, is similar to one brought against Google last November by Texas resident Keith Dunbar. That case, however, focused on whether Google is violating the privacy of non-Gmail users by allegedly scanning their messages in order to determine which ads to serve Gmail users.
Google filed papers last month asking the court to dismiss Dunbar's lawsuit. Among other reasons, the search giant argues that federal wiretap statute applies only to interceptions without the consent of one party. Gmail users, the company argues, give Google permission to scan their emails when they sign up for the free service.
The company also argues that scanning emails is necessary and, therefore, falls within an exception to the wiretap law. "Providing targeted ads to account holders is a necessary and fundamental aspect of Google's aim to better serve its Gmail customers," the company says.
When Google launched Gmail seven years ago, the company faced complaints by privacy advocates, but their concerns quickly died down. At one point, however, more than 30 groups protested Google's "scanning of confidential email," and one California lawmaker even unsuccessfully attempted to outlaw the scanning of emails by providers.
The current litigation about Gmail appears connected to a broader growth in privacy lawsuits in the recent years. Google itself has recently faced a host of privacy actions. They include ones stemming from its launch of Buzz, which created social networks out of people's email contacts, and revelations that its Street View cars captured data from WiFi networks.