Has Google Violated the Wiretap Law?

gmailMany of us never think twice about the services that Gmail provides, such as the spam filter and the new promotions tab. However, not all Gmail users are as happy with the way that Google scans the emails they receive. In fact, they believe that this constitutes an infringement upon their privacy. Because of this, a large group of plaintiffs has filed a class-action lawsuit against Google, which claims that the company is guilty of violating the laws against wiretapping. While Google has made various defenses about the benefits of their service and the terms and conditions that users agree too, federal judges appear to be on the side of the people.

The Charges

Google is facing charges on both federal and state levels for violating laws against wiretapping. The plaintiffs are users of Gmail from many different states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Texas. While Judge Lucy H. Koh, a U.S. District judge in San Jose, California, recently agreed to dismiss state claims, she allowed those plaintiffs to refile their claims and did not dismiss the federal claims against Google. The class action lawsuit is comprised of seven lawsuits in total, from both individuals and groups.

In this case, the plaintiffs are arguing that Google does not scan emails primarily to detect spam, but instead for their own benefit in terms of targeted advertising. Furthermore, they claim that Google does not explicitly detail the extent to which they scan emails in their Terms of Service agreement. This is not the first time that Google has come under fire in a court of law for wiretapping. Others have claimed that the implementation of the Street View feature on Google Maps violates these laws.

Google’s Response

In response to this lawsuit, Google filed for a dismissal of the claims, making a few different arguments. First, they argued that under the federal Wiretap Act, those who provide email services can scan emails if it is for the benefit of the user or is necessary to the way their service operates. Second, Google states that users agree to the Terms of Service when they sign up for Gmail, which means that they consent to such scanning. Finally, Google argued that scanning emails allows them to provide a better service.

The Verdict

Overall, Judge Koh disagreed with all of Google’s arguments against the claim and has not dismissed federal charges. In response, she argues that the federal Wiretap Act does not exclude email and other online services in the way that Google suggests. Judge Koh also disagrees both with the claim that Google’s Terms of Service adequately explains to users the way that Google scans emails and that users consent to such scanning. While this ruling is a major blow to Google, a trial has yet to be set, and it is likely that Google will be allowed to appeal before they go to trial.

Do you think that Google should be found guilty of violating the wiretapping laws?

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Elizabeth K

Elizabeth Kent is a recent graduate with an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies from Brandeis University. She earned her B.A. from Smith College with a major in the Study of Women and Gender and a minor in Jewish Studies. Elizabeth recently relocated from the Boston area back to Western Massachusetts, where she spends her free time volunteering with a local non-profit organization. Elizabeth has worked as a writing tutor, archival intern, research assistant, and retail associate. Her interests include studying pop culture, kittens, and making meals with as little cooking as possible.

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