Gmail, or Googlemail, is one of Google’s core offerings and for many users, has been their first introduction to Google’s products and services: adding a Google account is one of the important parts of setting up an Android smartphone and it comes with a Gmail account. Gmail for consumers offers at least 15 GB of storage space, shared with Google Drive, but this may quickly and easily be increased. This free webmail service is effectively paid for by scanning user’s emails and subsequently using this data for advertising profiling purposes. The collected information is also amalgamated for use in wider schemes as part of Google’s data collection services. These terms are explained to new users as well as to existing users from time to time when logging in via a web browser. But what happens if one is compelled to use a Gmail account for academic purposes, because your chosen academic institution (typically a university) uses Google Apps for Education? There may be some reassurance from the university that emails sent through the Gmail account are not studied by Google’s servers and from April 2014 we know that this is true – Google stopped scanning Google Apps for Education accounts. However, before this time, it’s inferred that Google did scan these accounts for marketing and advertising profiling purposes.
Four former and current students at the University of California, Berkeley, have sued Google in the San Jose, California federal court for this very reason. The students’ claim is that their Gmail accounts were processed and the information retained by Google for analytics, advertising and tracking between November 2010 to March 2014 – in contrast to what the university told them. The new lawsuit, Corley et al vs Google, claims that Google has behaved in a similar fashion for other Gmail users at a number of other universities. The suit explains that the court should find Google guilty of violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and if so, each of the thirty million plaintiffs could be owed damages the greater of $10,000 or $100 per day.
The students’ lawyer, Ray Gallo, explained that the suit isn’t a proposed class action and that anybody wishing to collect damages needs to sign up to the website (found in the via link below). Ray has involvement with another Gmail case, Matera vs Google, whereby the plaintiffs are arguing for a court to find Google cannot scan non-Gmail users’ data. Ray wrote in the civil complaint filed at the end of January 2016: “Google has refused to release additional details that would confirm its indirect admission that it has stopped collecting or using student data (or information derived from analysis of student data) for advertising purposes; furthermore, Google has refused to delete previously-collected data and has refused to promise not to use previously-collected data for advertising purposes.” Google have not commented on the case, nor would we expect them to in matters such as these. It would also be interesting to read what the universities’ take on the subject is.