The increasingly fierce battle over Internet privacy continues with Google in a court case defending its practice of mining Gmail for information and privacy groups challenging proposed policy changes by Facebook.
The Google Case
Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) on Thursday 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.
“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).
The Facebook Battle
Privacy groups on Thursday asked the Federal Trade Commission to prevent Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) from changing its data use policies on concern with how the social-network operator handles user information for advertising.
The proposed update would violate the company’s policies and an earlier settlement with the FTC, according to a letter to the agency dated yesterday and signed by officials at six groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Facebook last week proposed to clarify how it manages data for advertisements as part of an agreement stemming from a settlement of a class-action lawsuit.
“The Federal Trade Commission must act now to protect the interests of Facebook users,” the letter said. “The right of a person to control the use of their image for commercial purposes is the cornerstone of modern privacy law.”
Facebook has come under scrutiny for how it handles personal information at the world’s largest social-networking service. The company has faced multiple privacy flaps over the past few years, which it has taken steps to address. In late 2012, Facebook unveiled new privacy tools that provided shortcuts for managing settings, including what members can see on user accounts.
“We are taking the time to ensure that user comments are reviewed and taken into consideration to determine whether further updates are necessary and we expect to finalize the process in the coming week,” Debbie Frost, a spokeswoman for the company, wrote in an e-mailed statement.
The company also said updates to its “Data Use Policy” and “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities,” seek to add clarity for members.
“We revised our explanation of how things like your name, profile picture and content may be used in connection with ads or commercial content to make it clear that you are granting Facebook permission for this use when you use our services,” Frost said. “We have not changed our ads practices or policies.”
Others privacy groups to sign the letter to the FTC include the Center for Digital Democracy and Patient Privacy Rights.
The letter said the new rules “will allow Facebook to routinely use the images and names of Facebook users for commercial advertising without consent.”