The Secure Times

An online forum of the ABA Section of Antitrust Law's Privacy and Information Security Committee

Google Avoids Class Certification in Gmail Litigation

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On March 18, 2014, Judge Koh in the Northern District of California denied Plaintiffs’ Motion for Class Certification in the In re: Google Inc. Gmail Litigation matter, Case No. 13-MD-02430-LHK. The case involved allegations of unlawful wiretapping in Google’s operation of its Gmail email service. Plaintiffs alleged that, without obtaining proper consent, Google unlawfully read the content of emails, extracted concepts from the emails, and used metadata from emails to create secret user profiles.

Among other things, obtaining class certification requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that class issues will predominate over individual issues. In this case, Judge Koh’s opinion focused almost exclusively on the issue of predominance. The Court noted that the predominance inquiry “tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation.” Opinion (“Op.”) at 23 (citations omitted). The Court further emphasized that the predominance inquiry “is a holistic one, in which the Court considers whether overall, considering the issues to be litigated, common issues will predominate.” Op. at 24.

The Court in the Gmail litigation noted how the existence of consent is a common defense to all of Plaintiffs’ claims. Consent can either be express, or it can be implied “based on whether the surrounding circumstances demonstrate that the party whose communications were intercepted new of such interceptions.” Op. at 26. The decision explained how common issues would not predominate with respect to a determination of whether any particular class member consented to Google’s alleged conduct.

The Court briefly addressed whether the issue of express consent could be practically litigated on a class-wide basis, but the opinion focused largely on the issue of implied consent. The Court noted that implied consent “is an intensely factual question that requires consideration of the circumstances surrounding the interception to divine whether the party whose communication was intercepted was on notice that the communication would be intercepted.” Op. at 30. Google contended that implied consent would require individual inquiries into what each person knew. Google pointed to a plethora of information surrounding the scanning of Gmail emails including:  (1) Google’s Terms of Service; (2) Google’s multiple Privacy Policies; (3) Google’s product-specific Privacy Policies; (4) Google’s Help pages; (5) Google’s webpages on targeted advertising; (6) disclosures in the Gmail interface; (7) media reporting of Gmail’s launch and how Google “scans” email messages; (8) media reports regarding Google’s advertising system; and (9) media reports of litigation concerning Gmail email scanning. The Court thus agreed with Google that there was a “panoply of sources from which email users could have learned of Google’s interceptions other than Google’s TOS and Privacy Policies.” Op. at 33. With all these different means by which a user could have learned of the scanning practices (and provided implied consent to the practice) the issue of consent would overwhelmingly require individualized inquiries and thus precluded class certification.

This opinion demonstrates a key defense to class action claims where implied consent is at issue. Any class action defendant’s assessment of risk should include an early calculation of the likelihood of class certification, and that calculation should inform litigation strategy throughout the case. Google consistently litigated the matter to highlight class certification difficulties surrounding consent, and ultimately obtained a significant victory in defeating class certification.

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Author: Anna Hsia

I am a Business Litigation and Privacy Counsel at ZwillGen in San Francisco. I maintain a diverse practice counseling clients on privacy issues, and litigating business disputes. I am a Certified Information Privacy Professional, and as part of my counseling practice, I have advised clients on privacy policies, COPPA compliance, CalOPPA compliance, and HIPAA compliance. I also have significant experience in complex business litigation, including representing clients in class action lawsuits, privacy litigation, securities litigation, and trademark litigation.

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