February 8, 2016
Four former University of California (Berkeley) students and several non-students who corresponded via e-mail with university students have filed two privacy lawsuits against Google. The plaintiffs in these cases allege that Google collected and analyzed e-mail message content through the version of Google’s “Gmail” electronic mail service which the company provides to colleges and universities. The parties in these cases allege that Google’s practices violate federal communications privacy laws.
The case involving the former students is, Corley v. Google. The case involving the correspondents is Matera v. Google. Both cases are currently in progress in federal district court in San Jose, California. The parties claim that Google’s email actions constitute violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and other legal protections for computers and information privacy.
The plaintiffs in these cases allege that the version of Gmail provided to colleges and universities enables Google to collect student email messages on a massive scale. They further claim that Google analyzes message content for commercial purposes. More specifically, the parties in the cases contend that Google reviews email messages for the purpose of targeting advertising.
These cases highlight the challenges associated with the various popular digital platforms that are made available at no charge to users in exchange for access to information and acceptance of targeted advertising. Service providers traditionally argue that the commercial basis for the free services is access to information and to the customers themselves. Critics often contend that there is no true informed consent present when individual users accept the terms of these services.
These cases also raise the issue of school involvement in these commercial relationships. To the extent that access to the Gmail services involved in these cases was facilitated by the colleges and universities attended by the students, those academic institutions appear to have at least some level of involvement in these disputes.
The technical capability to collect, store, and analyze massive volumes of data, including electronic mail messages, continues to raise important and complex privacy issues. These cases involving Google underscore the fact that there are substantial commercial pressures driving enterprises to capture and use for commercial purposes as much consumer information as they can effectively access. In this environment, there will be a continuing struggle to balance legitimate business interests and opportunities with critical privacy concerns of individuals. Consumer privacy claims similar to those raised in these two cases will be increasingly common in the near future.