Two federal judges have ruled that Google will have to deal with two lawsuits that say Google used wiretapping to collect user data in Google's email service, Gmail, and its mapping application, Street View, so it could show users ads.
The various lawsuits accusing Google have been condensed into two separate cases and two judges ruled that both will go forward even with Google's opposition, according to the New York Times. The company is being accused of privacy violations while Google's argument is that the law hasn't kept up with technology.
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“It’s been a bad month for Google,” Alan Butler, a lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center told the Times. “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.”
Google has managed to thwart any major penalties regarding privacy, but the Gmail case affects nearly 500 million people and a class-action suit could be gigantic. It could also change how free email services are run, including making the communications more private.
“This ruling has the potential to really reshape the entire e-mail industry,” Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law, told the Times.
The Gmail case revolves around "Google’s practice of automatically scanning e-mail messages and showing ads based on the contents of the e-mails," according to the Times. That message-scanning is a violation of state and federal antiwiretapping laws, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs in the case include Gmail users, those who use Gmail as part of a school or university and those non-Gmail users who were sent messages by a Gmail user.
Both cases rely on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that has been used to uphold and enforce court decisions while also lacking foresight to account for technology such as email and social media.
“It’s not surprising we’re seeing courts struggle with applying the E.C.P.A.,” Goldman said. “It’s a poorly drafted statute that has aged very poorly.”
Google could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars if the Gmail case goes to trial and the tech company loses.