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Google Sued Over Gmail Content Scanning

The complaint objects to Google's automated e-mail scans and delivery of advertisements without compensating e-mail senders.

Thomas Claburn

November 19, 2010

2 Min Read

Attorneys representing Texas resident Keith Dunbar on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Google alleging that Gmail violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Texas, a venue more frequently noted for patent infringement complaints. The issue in this particular case is the way that Gmail scans the content of e-mail messages to serve targeted ads.

The complaint objects to Gmail's use of information in e-mail messages sent to Gmail accounts by those who don't use Gmail.

"Google intercepts and uses the information from non-Gmail account holders without regard to the privacy or proprietary nature of the information," the complaint states. "As result of Google's actions intercepting non-Gmail account holders' e-mail, Google obtains a monetary benefit without the consent of the Class members and without compensation to them."

This is not a new objection and isn't ikely to trouble Google's legal department much. Eric Goldman, associate professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law, characterizes the complaint as an "are-you-kidding-me? lawsuit" on his blog.

"[T]he topic was exhaustively debated when Gmail first publicly launched in 2004," said Goldman in an e-mail. "There were numerous calls on government agencies to investigate Google, and Cal. Sen. Figueroa proposed anti-Gmail legislation in the California legislature. Frankly, after all the furor died down a half-decade ago, I had assumed everyone had moved on long ago."

"We haven't received a formal complaint and can't comment on specifics," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "To be clear though, Gmail -- like most Web mail providers -- uses automatic scanning to fight against spam and viruses. We use similar technology to show advertisements that help keep our services free. This is how Gmail has always worked."

Google pre-emptively addressed the issues raised in the complaint in its Gmail privacy policy. The company acknowledges that while it has heard concerns that Gmail may compromise the privacy of those sending messages to Gmail users, such worries arise from a misunderstanding of how Gmail works.

"Using Gmail does not violate the privacy of senders since no one other than the recipient is allowed to read their e-mail messages, and no one but the recipient sees targeted ads and related information," the company states in its Gmail privacy policy.

Google argues that e-mail recipients have the right to view e-mail messages using the service of their choosing and that on the Internet senders are not required to consent to automated scanning, which every e-mail provider does, for security purposes if nothing else.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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