Google Dodges Class Action Lawsuit Regarding Email Privacy While Marketing Questions Arise


U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh denied a broad-based class action lawsuit against Google on March 18, 2014, which could have potentially cost Google billions of dollars in settlements. The controversy revolves around user assertions that Google is gathering data from private emails and using this information to craft personalized marketing campaigns. Koh decided to drop the class action lawsuit because the individual complaints seemed to be too divergent.

Privacy Concerns

It’s no wonder that class action lawsuits against large companies like Google are hitting the news, especially in the wake of privacy activists like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Multiple tech companies and governmental departments have been accused of illegal wiretapping and privacy breaches. So, it seems almost like an odd twist of fate that Google came out with better encryption to protect against NSA scrutiny in March 2014, the same month that their battle regarding email marketing and confidentiality was dropped. Private email content doesn’t seem so private anymore, if you believe Google has been analyzing your messages for marketing strategy ideas. Even if the system is automated, it’s possible for that data to be intercepted, stolen, or misused by the wrong parties.

What This Means for the Plaintiffs

The plaintiffs will not be able to reopen the lawsuit now that it has been denied. Basically, these individuals are now left with the option of taking legal action on a much smaller basis. Since their efforts have been splintered, it will become extremely difficult for users to pursue reparations for future privacy issues with Gmail. Taking individual action against Google also puts individuals at further risk for high legal fees and drawn-out legal battles.

This win for Google does send an alarming message to users who want to contend with the email giant in the future. Those who wish to place broad-based class action lawsuits in the future will need to find ways to demonstrate the similarity of their privacy and livelihood concerns.

What Companies Must Ask Themselves

When should you draw the line between someone’s personal data and your marketing plans? Email is an integral part of our lives, and over 500 million users rely specifically on Gmail to send and receive information. Companies are learning that they must tread lightly —  consumers are not taking privacy breaches lightly. This might require a certain amount of coordination between IT departments and marketing leaders to ensure that proper accountability is in place.

If your online service will be using customer data for marketing purposes, make sure that your user terms of service makes this completely transparent. Do your customers understand that they will be receiving promotional materials, and do they understand how ads are tailored to their liking?

Ultimately, security leaks and privacy misunderstandings can lead to costly legal battles that Google might be able to afford, while most small businesses cannot. It’s in most companies’ best interest to start reassessing the ways customer data is used for marketing. Doing so builds trust between brands and their customers.

Protecting Customer Privacy

In the wake of the Gmail controversy, businesses have started to rethink their approach to customer confidentiality and privacy. Many are starting with the CAN-SPAM Act, which is a federal law that regulates the use of commercial messages online. According to email marketing service provider GetResponse, “There are three basic requirements for any CAN-SPAM complaint footer: Unsubscribe link, privacy policy link, and physical street address.”

In addition to these CAN-SPAM parameters, there are other ways for organizations to secure client data:

  • + Use rotating passwords so that your accounts can’t be easily breached.
  • + Include passcode locks on any devices used for work, including mobile phone or tablets.
  • + Store data on encrypted storage devices that are located off-site.
  • + Set up encrypted, private Internet networks for employee use.
  • + Avoid using any customer data for actions that fall outside the scope of the user agreement or your company’s rules.
  • + Be as transparent as possible regarding collection and use of customer data.

This is by no means a comprehensive list for protecting customer data; however, these tips can get most businesses started. The integrity of data security can speak volumes to prospective customers.

The bullet that Google dodged last month is causing quite a stir among many startups and online service providers. Just when, exactly, has a company gone too far? Before companies start peeking into their own customers’ data, they need to consider the legality of correspondences, data collection, and marketing tactics.

Larry is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter at @LarryAlton3 and LinkedIn.

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