SAN FRANCISCO – Wiretapping is typically the stuff of spy dramas and shady criminal escapades. But now, one of the world’s biggest Web companies, Google, must defend itself against accusations that it is illegally wiretapping in the course of its everyday business – gathering data about Internet users and showing them related ads.
The accusations, made over several years in various lawsuits that have been merged into two separate cases, ask whether Google went too far in collecting user data in Gmail and Street View, its mapping project. Two federal judges have ruled, over Google’s protests, that both cases can move forward.
The wiretapping rulings are the latest example of judges and regulators prodding Google over privacy violations. The company is on the defensive, struggling to convince overseers and its users that it protects consumer data, while arguing that the law is stuck in the past and has failed to keep up with new technologies.
“It’s been a bad month for Google,” said Alan Butler, a lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “What’s at stake is a core digital privacy issue for consumers right now, which is the extent to which their digital communications are protected from use by third parties.”
For the most part, Google has managed to avoid major privacy penalties. The Gmail case could have broad effects, though, because nearly half a billion people worldwide use the service, and because if it is, as expected, certified as a class action, the fines could be enormous. At the same time, the case could have long-term consequences for all email services – including those from Yahoo and Microsoft – and for the issue of how confidential is our online data.
“This ruling has the potential to really reshape the entire email industry,” said Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law.
The Gmail case involves Google’s practice of automatically scanning email messages and showing ads based on the contents of the emails. The plaintiffs include voluntary Gmail users, people who have to use Gmail as part of an educational institution and non-Gmail users whose messages were received by a Gmail user. They say the scanning of the messages violates state and federal anti-wiretapping laws.
The case revives a short-lived uproar over Gmail ads when Google introduced them in 2004. Microsoft has recently tried to call attention to the practice as part of its Scroogled campaign, including a video that shows a so-called Gmail man reading people’s email. Google has continued to show new types of ads in Gmail, including ads that look like emails.
“Google uses Gmail as its own secret data-mining machine, which intercepts, warehouses and uses, without consent, the private thoughts and ideas of millions of unsuspecting Americans who transmit email messages through Gmail,” lawyers for the plaintiffs argued July 11, opposing Google’s motion to dismiss the case. On Thursday, Judge Lucy H. Koh of US District Court denied Google’s motion in a 43-page order that fought the company at almost every turn.
Koh is highly respected in Silicon Valley, with a reputation for being fearless
During the Apple-Samsung patent trial, she made headlines for asking an Apple lawyer if he was “smoking crack.”