Google Sued For SMS Spamming

Twilio, GroupMe, and Google's recent acquisition, Slide, also were sued by users of group text services claiming to be flooded with unsolicited messages.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

June 2, 2011

3 Min Read

Slideshow: The Top 16 Google Services

Slideshow: The Top 16 Google Services

Slideshow: The Top 16 Google Services(click for larger image and for full slideshow)

Two lawsuits are challenging the way group text messaging services operate. Google and its recent acquisition Slide were sued last week for allegedly spamming users with SMS messages. In a separate lawsuit, Twilio and GroupMe were also sued based on similar allegations.

Both cases were filed by Edelson McGuire, a Chicago-based law firm with offices in California, Colorado, Florida, and New York.

Jay Edelson, founder of Edelson McGuire, said in a phone interview that his firm filed the lawsuits in response to the defendants' violation of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which prohibits unsolicited voice and text calls to cell phones, among other things.

"You've [got to] get consent before you spam people," he said.

A Google spokesperson said the company had not yet been served and thus could not comment on the allegations.

The complaint against Google and Slide alleges that the Disco group text messaging service, launched by Slide in late March, fails to obtain adequate consent, as required under the law.

Users of the Disco website or app can sign up and add up to 99 people to a group to which text messages can be sent. The complaint says that people can be added to a group without consent and that removal requires opting out.

"Once all group members receive a message, they too can respond to everyone else in the group an unlimited number of times, creating an ongoing 'chat room' effect of nearly constant text messages," the complaint states. "Because the messages come from an unknown number, and the group creator can easily input a fake name, the resulting chat room can be a chaotic storm of text messages in which people are attempting to figure out what the group is, who the creator is, how they were put in the group, and how to stop it."

The plaintiff in the case, Bret L. Lusskin of Florida, had his phone rendered temporarily inoperable as result of receiving over a hundred text messages from various group members resentful of the unsolicited texts, according to the complaint.

What's more, the complaint says, being added to a group subjects individuals to unsolicited SMS marketing messages from Slide that invite recipients to download the Disco mobile application.

The complaint against Twilio and GroupMe makes similar claims on behalf of plaintiff Brian Glauser of Virginia.

Edelson said that a 9th circuit decision on 2009 held that both text and voice calls fell under the purview of the TCPA, which was written before the advent of SMS messaging.

If the plaintiffs prevail and the case is certified as a class action, the damages could be substantial. The law calls for $500 per unauthorized message, and three times that if the violation is deemed to be willful.

Edelson also observed that users of group texting services could be held liable for spamming others. The issue isn't likely to come up among groups of friends, he suggested, but he described a scenario in which a bar employed an attractive hostess to gather patrons' names to add to a promotional text message group as an example of how users could run afoul of the law.

"We're not against innovation," said Edelson, "but we think you've also got to do it in a way that complies with the law. There are easy issues to fix and we hope the companies will fix them."

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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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