Lawsuit Against Google for Scanning Minors’ Emails without Consent

Published On November 16, 2012 | By Melissa Maalouf | General, Litigation, Privacy
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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.

About The Author

Melissa Maalouf’s practice focuses on advising a broad range of clients, from start-ups to established companies, on both U.S. and international data privacy and security issues. Melissa assists clients in drafting appropriate website disclosures, implementing legally-compliant e-commerce flows, responding to FTC Section 5 and state AG enforcement actions, analyzing advertising claims, and children’s online privacy and safety issues. She also regularly helps clients obtain certification under the EU-US Safe Harbor and navigate compliance with divergent international privacy laws.