Google has updated its terms of service to clarify that it can scan e-mails for advertising purposes. This practice has been criticized by privacy organizations, users, and other technology companies like Microsoft. Even though users who attempted to file lawsuits against Google were not granted class-action status, a U.S. District Court has ruled that Google's terms of service did need to be reworked.
U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh's ruling seems to have been behind Google's decision to change its terms of service, though the company has not stated why the changes were implemented.
The Court's Decision
Users suing Google over alleged exploitation of private user data cannot do it as a class action because their damage claims are too broad, according to Koh's ruling in the District Court for the Northern District of California. At the same time, Koh observed there were issues with Google's interception of e-mails because it relied on a variety of service agreements that did not make it clear how user data would be utilized.
The plaintiffs are filing an appeal with the hopes that Koh's decision can be overturned. If the ruling stands, they would have file lawsuits individually or in small groups, which means legal costs could outweigh any beneficial outcome.
We asked Jeff Kagan, an independent technology analyst, for his view on Google's collection of user data for advertising purposes. He told us that given the fact that Gmail is a free service, users cannot expect that their information will remain private.
"That's one problem with Google Gmail. It's free, but that also means they can stick their noses into your e-mail for whatever reason they want." Kagan said. "I think users expect privacy, but if they want privacy they should not look to Google or their free e-mail service, Gmail. Privacy is expected when users pay for e-mail. This is free. That's the other side of the coin."
Gmail users in particular have claimed that Google violated state and federal wiretapping laws because the company automatically scans e-mails. By continuously looking at the content of messages, Google is able to adjust advertisements to appeal to a user across any platforms using Google's advertising service.
The class-action lawsuit ruled invalid by Koh could have resulted in Google being forced to pay out billions of dollars. While that specific lawsuit has not been successful, privacy organizations have continued to pressure Google to change its policies.
In the updated terms of service, Google specifically states it is able to collect data from e-mails.
"Our automated systems analyze your content (including e-mails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection," the new provision says. "This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored."