Lawsuit Against Google for Scanning Minors’ Emails without Consent

Lawsuit Against Google for Scanning Minors’ Emails without Consent

On 11/15/12, a class action complaint was filed on behalf of a 16-year old child against Google, alleging that Google scans emails sent by minors for advertising purposes, which is in violation of federal and state laws (see A.K. v. Google, Inc., No: 3:12-cv-01179-GPM-PMF (S.D. Ill. 11/15/12). (S.D. Ill. 11/15/12).

Specifically, the complaint alleged that because Google uses age-screening mechanisms to prevent children under 13 from using its email services, it is aware of the age of all of its users, including users under the age of majority.  Google does not require users between the ages of 13 and 18 to obtain parental consent before opening a Gmail account.

The complaint further explained that Google obtains the majority of its revenue from advertising. In order to serve targeted ads to its users, the complaint alleged that Google uses an electronic device to intercept and scan the contents of Gmail subscribers’ emails immediately after they are sent and before they arrive at their intended recipient.

The plaintiff argued that these actions violate a number of federal and state laws.  First, the plaintiffs alleged a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”), arguing that Google illegally intercepted minors’ electronic communications sent through Gmail because:  (1) minors are unable to legally consent to the interception of their communications; (2) Google does not obtain parental consent before a minor can open an account and before Google engages in such interception; and (3) no other ECPA exception applied.  Plaintiff also made a similar interception argument under the Illinois Eavesdropping Statute.

Second, the complaint alleged that Google violated minors’ right to seclusion by intentionally taking information from the privacy of homes, and in some cases, bedrooms of minor children, without “even an attempt to obtain permission” from parents or guardians.

Finally, the complaint alleged that Google was unjustly enriched by scanning minors’ email accounts, given that such activities provide a monetary benefit to Google through the sale of advertising to third parties without the consent of the minor child or a parent or guardian.

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About The Author

Melissa Maalouf

Melissa Maalouf’s practice focuses on advising a broad range of clients, including internet service providers, media companies, video companies, financial institutions, mobile app providers, and start-up internet companies on various U.S. and international data privacy and data security issues. These issues include drafting consumer-facing disclosures, privacy policies, and website terms; conducting website privacy and security audits; creating transparent consumer notice and choice mechanisms; advising on privacy risks raised by mergers and acquisitions; developing guidelines for clients’ online tracking and data sharing/use initiatives; counseling general audience and children’s websites on compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and children’s safety issues; and guiding multinational companies in developing global strategies for compliance with marketing restrictions, cookies and online tracking rules, consumer protection regulations, data protection laws, and international data transfer laws. Melissa also assists clients in responding to FTC investigations involving alleged violations of Section 5 of the FTC Act. She has also advised clients with respect to e-commerce issues such as domestic and international electronic signature laws, online contracting through click-wrap and browse-wrap agreements and terms of service, and online user authentication and authority issues. Prior to her time at ZwillGen, Melissa was an associate in the Communications, Media, and Privacy group at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, where she counseled clients on a wide variety of international and domestic data privacy, data security, e-commerce, and technology issues. While at American University, Washington College of Law, Melissa served as the Editor-in-Chief of Volume 56 of the American University Law Review, received the Outstanding Graduate Award and the Myer’s Society Scholarship, and finished in the semi-finals of the 2006 Jerome Prince Memorial Evidence Moot Court Competition.

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