Google faces trillion dollar class action suit over Gmail abuses

We all like to think that our email is secure. But, as recent news regarding the National Security Agency demonstrates, our activities online are generally not as private as we may believe. Recently, plaintiffs filed a class action suit against Google, alleging that the company improperly collected information from Gmail users in an effort to leverage consumer data for profit.

The plaintiffs in the suit allege that Google scanned accounts of Gmail users for roughly five years. They seek $100 per day for each member of the prospective class for the five years that the alleged data improprieties occurred. The plaintiffs are seeking damages for all those who either sent email through a Gmail account or who received email from a Gmail account. By some estimates, if Google were to lose this suit, it could cost the company trillions of dollars.

It is currently unclear whether the case will be allowed to proceed as a class action. The plaintiffs argue that the circumstances of the case are such that the plaintiffs' concerns are best addressed if they are treated as a class. As evidence, plaintiffs cite the uniform treatment of all Gmail users and the uniform use of privacy disclosures by Google.

For its part, Google argues that handling plaintiffs' claims as a class action would be a "herculean" task, requiring the identification of millions of individuals. In Google's opinion, the effort is far beyond the resources available to either the company or the plaintiffs. The primary sticking point is that the class would include not only Gmail users, but also everyone who received an email from a Gmail account.

What is clear is that the plaintiffs face an uphill battle to be certified as a class. Just a few years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case in which approximately 1.5 million women sued Walmart, alleging discrimination in hiring, pay and promotions. The Court rejected their efforts to be certified as a class, finding that not all plaintiffs had enough in common. It is easy to see Google making a similar argument in this case. If this case proceeds as a class action, it will be the largest class action suit in U.S. history.

A decision regarding the status of this case is expected soon. In the meantime, it is a good idea for consumers to think carefully about the email providers they use and just how much they trust them.