Settlement Likely|in Google Email Case

     SAN JOSE (CN) – A federal judge Thursday refused to let hundreds of university students, staff and faculty sue Google as a class for scanning their emails and using them for profit, and a settlement appears likely.
     “I will not consolidate these cases,” U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh said at an afternoon hearing. “I just don’t think it’s the same transaction or occurrence.”
     Plaintiffs’ attorney Ray Gallo indicated at the hearing that his clients and Google are working on a settlement that could be completed by October.
     Google scans the contents of emails sent through its email service and uses the data for a twofold purpose: to develop targeted advertising, and to develop user profiles it can sell to other companies.
     The plaintiffs sought to combine two cases with more than 800 plaintiffs with similar claims.
     Koh said it’s not a true class action. “There is too much individualization,” she said.
     For instance, some plaintiffs are primary users of the email accounts, while others send emails to these accounts, which Google intercepts and scans for commercial purposes.
     Some plaintiffs are students, some are staff and some are faculty. And the plaintiffs attend or work at a variety of universities that may have different email infrastructures.
     Gallo said there is enough commonality to consolidate. “The cases clearly have a common question,” he said.
     The dispute stems from a complaint filed in May by hundreds of plaintiffs who work for or attend some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. They claim that Google in effect spies on student, faculty and staff emails to use the information to make money.
     “The content of plaintiffs’ and all educational users’ emails was intercepted, extracted, analyzed and used by Google to create user profiles, user-segment models and otherwise to enhance Google’s marketing, advertising, and other businesses interests and products,” the plaintiffs said in the complaint.
     Google Apps for Education includes email, spreadsheets and other office or Internet-related apps. The Mountain View-based company offers the package for free to colleges and universities.
     The plaintiffs say that despite assurances from Google that it would not use its access to university emails to compile information it could sell, the company did exactly that.
     “Google denied that it was scanning Google Apps for Education users’ emails for advertising or other commercial purposes and misled educational institutions into believing their users’ emails were private,” the complaint states. “Google took deliberate steps to conceal and deny its actions.
     The lawsuit includes plaintiffs from Harvard, Yale, the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Maine, the University of Arizona, Boston University, New York University, Northwestern and the University of California-Santa Cruz.
     Koh recently handed down a decision in a similar case involving Google’s interception and scanning of data in users’ email without permission, and encouraged the attorneys at the Thursday hearing to read the ruling.
     In that ruling, of Aug. 12, Koh found that Google’s interception policy may violate the California Wiretap Act, and denied Google’s motion to dismiss.
     Michael Rhodes, attorney for Google, said he understands what Koh is saying.
     “We can read the tea leaves, your honor,” he said.
     Google and the university plaintiffs are scheduled to argue a motion to dismiss in late October, but on Thursday the attorneys indicated that Koh is more likely to preside over a settlement hearing at that time.

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