Web Users Run Into Snag In Google Privacy Suit

It looks like Google could catch a break in a high-profile lawsuit accusing the company of violating wiretapping laws by scanning Gmail messages in order to surround them with ads.

Gmail users, as well as non-Gmail users, are trying to bring a class-action lawsuit against Google for allegedly violating people's privacy by intercepting messages for ad-targeting purposes. U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh previously dealt Google a big blow when she ruled that the company's scans potentially violate the wiretap law.

But this week, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh reportedly expressed doubt about another aspect of the lawsuit -- whether non-Gmail users could proceed as a class. Specifically, she said that attorneys representing consumers faced a “huge hurdle” in securing class-action status for non-Gmail users, according to Reuters.



The hurdle appears to center on problems contacting all of the non-Gmail users who have sent emails to people with Gmail accounts. Google said in court papers that it isn't feasible to send emails to every non-Gmail user in Google's email system.

Koh previously rejected Google's arguments that Gmail users explicitly consent to the scans, and that non-Gmail users implicitly consent to them. After that ruling was issued, Yahoo was hit with similar lawsuits by non-Yahoo email users.

Koh hasn't issued a ruling yet, so it's not clear whether she will allow non-Gmail users to proceed as a class. Even if not, she still could allow Gmail users to bring their case as a class-action. And even if the non-Gmail users can't bring a class-action, they could still bring individual lawsuits -- though that possibility is remote: As a practical matter, most consumers can't afford to proceed with lawsuits unless they can bring class actions. One reason is that companies often will pay several million dollars to settle a privacy class-action, but aren't likely to pay anything close to that to settle a case brought by an individual. Also, attorneys who prevail in class-action cases are able to obtain hefty fees as part of a settlement. But only a rare consumer is willing to pay a lawyer to bring an individual  privacy lawsuit that's likely to yield little return.


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