Google Seeks to Dismiss E-Mail Wiretap Privacy Lawsuit

Google Inc. asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit claiming it illegally reads and mines the content of private e-mail messages sent to Gmail in violation of state and federal wiretap laws.

Google argued in federal court in San Jose, California, yesterday that the complaint should be thrown out because the laws allow an “electronic communication service” such as the world’s largest search engine to do automated scanning in the “ordinary course of business” to route and manage e-mail.

“Google can articulate a legitimate business purpose” that exempts it from liability under the federal wiretap laws, Whitty Somvichian, a lawyer for Google, told U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh. Somvichian said the company explains to users the collection of “information we get from your use of our services.”

Users of Gmail and other e-mail services from Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and other states contend that Google “does not disclose the extent of its processing,” according to a May 16 court filing.

While explanations of how Google uses the information are blacked out in the complaint, plaintiffs say the Mountain View, California-based company exploits the content of e-mail messages “for its own benefit unrelated to the service of e-mail,” and for its profit.

‘Every E-Mail’

“This company reads on a daily basis every e-mail that’s sent through it,” plaintiffs’ attorney Sean Rommel told Koh yesterday. Google’s argument that “just because a person uses Gmail, privacy interests should be diminished is wrong,” and not what Congress intended in its exceptions to federal wiretap laws, he said.

Google says the processes at issue “are a standard and fully-disclosed part of the Gmail service,” and the scanning of e-mail is “completely automated and involve no human review,” according to a company court filing. Electronic communication service providers such as Google “must scan the e-mails sent to and from their systems as part of providing their services,” the company argued.

The search engine company can’t be found liable for breaking wiretap laws because “Gmail users consented to the automated scanning of their e-mails, including for purposes of delivering targeted advertising, in exchange for using the Gmail service,” according to the filing.

While Koh didn’t rule yesterday on the request to dismiss the case, she asked lawyers to return to court next month to discuss a trial date.

The case is In re Google Inc. Gmail Litigation, 13-md-02430, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).

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