Google's attorneys say their long-running practice of electronically scanning the contents of people's Gmail accounts to help sell ads is legal, and are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to stop the practice.
In a federal court hearing Thursday in San Jose, Google argued that "all users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing.''
The class action lawsuit, a combination of six cases consolidated in May, says Google "unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people's private email messages'' in violation of California's privacy laws and federal wiretapping statutes. The lawsuit notes that the company even scans messages sent to any of the 425 million active Gmail users from non-Gmail users who never agreed to the company's terms.
"This company reads, on a daily basis, every email that's submitted, and when I say read, I mean looking at every word to determine meaning,'' said Texas attorney Sean Rommel, who is co-counsel the class action case.
And Rommel said "the data that's being amassed by this company'' could be used for more than just targeting advertising, although the parts of the lawsuit discussing what more Google might be doing with private information is currently under seal.
"Why wouldn't you just say `the content of your emails?''' she asked.
But he said it's "inconceivable'' that someone using a Gmail account would not be aware that the information in their email would be known to Google.
Google has repeatedly described how it targets its advertising based on words that show up in Gmail messages. For example, the company says if someone has received a lot of messages about photography or cameras then it might display an advertisement from a local camera store. Google says the process is fully automated, "and no humans read your email...''
"Users, while they're using their Google Gmail account, have given Google the ability to use the emails they send and receive for providing that service,'' Somvichian said. "They have not assumed the risk that Google will disclose their information and they fully retain the right to delete their emails.''
Privacy advocates have long questioned the practice.
"People believe, for better or worse, that their email is private correspondence, not subject to the eyes of a $180 billion corporation and its whims,'' Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court said.