Google Wiretap, Data Mining Class Action Dismissed

John Lister's picture

Google says it is going to mediation over claims it unlawfully scanned the contents of emails for advertising purposes. It's a surprise move, considering that Google recently won a major court victory over the affair.

The legal dispute centers on the fact that Google's computers scan through the contents of email messages sent via its free Gmail service. Google then uses keywords that appear in messages to produce advertisements that appear alongside the message in the user's inbox.

As an example: if you received a message from a friend mentioning an upcoming golf game, you might see an ad for a golf club supplier. Running these ads is how Google makes money from the free email service.

Google Accused Of Breaking Wiretap Laws

Over the past few years, a range of people have made legal objections to the email scanning practice.

Plaintiffs of this particular case recalled that in 2010, the then-chief executive officer Eric Schmidt claimed that "[Google's] policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it." The plaintiffs allege that the line was crossed when Google unlawfully intercepted their emails and profiled users for undisclosed purposes. (Source:

The details of each case are different, but between them they cover three main points.

The first is whether Google is breaking wiretap laws by scanning the messages. The second issue is whether Gmail users have been made properly aware of and consented to the practice. Finally, there's also the question of how the law applies to people who aren't Gmail users, but have emailed Gmail users and thus had their messages scanned anyway.

Those bringing the cases had hoped to combine them into a class action suit. In such a case, it would be a single trial; if Google was ordered to pay damages, the payout could go to everyone affected by the case, even if they weren't involved in the trial.

Google Damages Could Be In The Trillions

Given the sheer number of Gmail users and the amounts the cases were asking in compensation, on paper that might have meant Google paying out literally trillions of dollars. Even though it's highly unlikely any damages would be set so high, the financial implications could have been disastrous.

However, a judge recently refused to grant class action status.

Judge Lucy Koh said that the details in the various cases simply weren't similar enough that they should all be treated in the same way. Anyone bringing a case would now have to do so on their own - something that's likely to be too expensive for most involved. It's important to note Judge Koh's ruling wasn't a judgment on whether the claims themselves had any merit. (Source:

Despite that victory, Google has still told the court it will meet the various claimants at talks with an independent mediator, suggesting it may still consider a settlement. It's possible Google is prepared to pay a small amount to make the matter go away. It's also likely that any offer would be made "without prejudice", meaning it couldn't be cited as evidence of wrongdoing in any future case.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you use Gmail, and are you aware that Google scans your email messages for the purpose of profit through advertisements? Do you consider this practice of email scanning 'a price worth paying' in order to get free email service? Do you think any of the people bringing the case forward have a valid point, and do you believe they deserve compensation? What do you think of Eric Schmidt's comments regarding Google's policy (I.E.: getting "right up to the creepy line and not cross it")?

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adh773's picture

E-mail should not be allowed under any circumstance to be scanned, monitored or whatever else. Google claims that it is only using keywords for adds, but that is just their version. Opens up avenues for misuse.

doulosg's picture

If there were to be a judgement against Google, it would presumably mean the death of free email.

richo8221's picture

I do not think that what Google is doing to peoples emails is right by any stretch of the imagination. I personally have shed everything GOOGLE on my computers...It's bad enough that they (Google) track you all over the internet.

Good Bye Google

DavidFB's picture

Personally, I use Gmail but am careful not to put too many eggs in the Google basket. I also use an email client rather than webmail. Thus, I am not exposed to the advertising but would still have the emails scanned.

I debated about dropping them as I also have my own domain but realized the majority of the people I correspond with personally use one of the major free providers so that effort would be pointless, as the article notes.

Personally, I think they have crossed a line. But it highlights issues with the entire email protocol. It was never designed to be secure or for personal use. It still lacks a number of basic standards. But unlike web standards, the industry isn't motivated to upgrade when we're willing to share our lives.

Google ads have also spawned the fake web-site industry and dominate some domain registrars. Google search is now trying to filter out the consequences of their own offerings.

More worrisome to me is smart-phone world. An Android phone is Google-central and the permissions you're expected to grant for some of the software is appalling. Other phones are similar.

Ever since Facebook demonstrated the model, carrots that enable customer tracking have become a gold mine for marketing companies. Even this site offers login via Facebook or Google accounts. It's called how to connect your activities across the web. And they keep pushing the edge further.

Google is not the worst by any means. But their size and dominance make it more of an issue.

DavidFB's picture

By the way - this page has 23 social network tracking links on it. You don't have to click on the Like buttons for them to be aware of your presence on the page. It's very common now.

mikedann's picture

Really? You guys are joking right? EVERYTHING you do online will live for ever and is being tracked by someone! You ISP tracks what sites you visit, your email is saved in backups that can be retrieved in the months or years in the future, your cell phone carrier keeps track of you no matter which OS you use along with what sites you visit, what games you play who you call, oh and who your emailing using there service.

DO you store pictures on the web? Cause once you post them they aren't yours anymore. Well they may be yours, but anyone that can look at them can copy them. DO you store data on something like Dropbox? DO you think that people that work for those companies cant access your data? Or that if your not using a really really secure password that other people cant hack it.

Google is very up front on how they make there money. Read your user agreement for your FREE email account gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo all basically say you have a reasonable right to privacy, but they can do most anything they want with your information. And they can change this policy ANYTIME THEY WANT!!!

I mean seriously DO you use a different password for every account that you use on the web? You should because if you use the same password on every account people can hack your accounts if they figure it out!!!

SO please online privacy is a joke, you don't want them reading your email run your own email server! Oh wait you cant cause your ISP wont let you. And if you host it somewhere else they have access.

Bottom line if you want online privacy don't put files, pictures, information online that you don't want the world to see. Store your stuff locally privately.

darylhutchins's picture


(What sort of moron would put anything "incriminating", "private", or even "intensely personal", in an e-mail anyway?)

Stuart Berg's picture

Since Google makes no secret of the fact they extract data from emails for the purpose of directed advertising, and since there are plenty of other online email systems available, and since the advertising they present pays for us using their email system, I see nothing wrong with what they are doing. Perhaps the only thing they are guilty of is not offering the option of a paid version of Gmail that has no extraction of data for advertising and has no advertising. Otherwise, if you don't like what they are doing, go elsewhere.

P.S. I do NOT work for Google!

hrsdad's picture

I agree Stuart. if this were the NSA snooping without notification, then we would have a right to be up in arms over it, but Google tells us upfront that they do this so the email use is free. perhaps some of the people who think their email should be sacrosanct should try to set up their own servers to see how much "free service" they could afford. Google MUST GET ITS MONEY somehow and my personal preference is the advertising that I can ignore. I mean, come on folks! the television industry has been giving us unwanted advertising since 1948 and the only difference is their ads are not pinpointed to the user. if you want your email to be non-observable, encrypt it!