(Adds Google comment)
By Jonathan Stempel
March 19 Google Inc won a significant
legal victory as a U.S. judge decided not to combine several
lawsuits that accused the Internet search company of violating
the privacy rights of hundreds of millions of email users into a
single class action.
In a Tuesday evening decision, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh
in San Jose, California, said the claims, including those on
behalf of users of Google's popular Gmail service, were too
dissimilar to be grouped together. She also said the plaintiffs
cannot pursue their broad-based class action again.
A class action could have exposed Google to billions of
dollars of potential damages and added pressure on the Mountain
View, California-based company to settle.
Instead, email users might now be forced to sue individually
or in small groups, lowering recoveries and boosting costs.
The case has been closely watched for guidance on how
technology companies that provide email services might collect
data used to target advertising, and perhaps boost revenue and
Sean Rommel and Jerome Tapley, lawyers representing the
plaintiffs, did not respond on Wednesday to requests for
Gmail users accused Google of violating federal and state
privacy and wiretapping laws by scanning their messages so it
could compile secret account profiles and target advertising.
Claims were also raised on behalf of students at schools
that use Gmail, and people who do not use Gmail but communicate
by email with people who do.
The lawsuit sought damages of $100 per day for each email
user whose privacy was violated.
Google has said its software simply looks for keywords that
can lead to the tailored advertisements.
Matt Kallman, a Google spokesman, said: "We're glad the
court agreed that we have been upfront about Gmail's automated
'PANOPLY' OF DISCLOSURES
In September, Koh rejected Google's effort to dismiss the
lawsuits on the ground that users implicitly consented to its
activity, recognizing it as part of the email delivery process.
But in Tuesday's decision, Koh said an assessment of whether
users gave that consent required a broad review of how they came
to know that interceptions were taking place.
"There is a panoply of sources from which email users could
have learned of Google's interceptions," she wrote.
"Determining to what disclosures each class member was privy
and determining whether that specific combination of disclosures
was sufficient to imply consent ... will lead to numerous
individualized inquiries that will overwhelm any common
questions," the judge added.
In denying the class certification motion with prejudice,
Koh said it would be unfair for Google to keep litigating.
She said Google has opposed such motions for 2-1/2 years,
and had no chance to oppose in writing a recent request by the
plaintiffs for permission to refile such a motion.
Google also faces litigation in California accusing it of
violating federal wiretapping law by accidentally collecting
emails and other personal data while building its Street View
The case is In re: Google Inc Gmail Litigation, U.S.
District Court, Northern District of California, 13-md-02430.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Lisa Von
Ahn and Meredith Mazzilli)