Harvard Law Student Files Class Action Suit Against Google

HLS student alleges Google Buzz constitutes breach of privacy

Harvard Law School student Eva S. Hibnick filed a class action lawsuit on Wednesday against Google on behalf of Gmail users, alleging that Google Buzz—Google’s new social networking application—discloses personal information without consent and constitutes a breach of privacy.

Buzz allows users to “follow,” or track updates posted by, their e-mail contacts. Though Google has issued apologies and made changes to the program since its Feb. 9 launch, the application continues to be an “opt-out” program, meaning that Gmail’s 31.2 million users are automatically signed up until they choose to deactivate Buzz.

Hibnick, a second year student at the Law School, said she was upset that she was automatically “following” and being “followed” on Buzz by people whom Google had chosen for her.

“The social networking industry is going too far,” Hibnick said.

Hibnick signed on as lead plaintiff for the lawsuit after third year Law School student Benjamin R. Osborn approached her about pursuing a class action suit.

Osborn said he thought that there might be evidence for a lawsuit two days after the program launched and later suggested the idea to Law School professor William B. Rubenstein, who specializes in class action law.

Rubenstein then contacted attorney Gary E. Mason, who will now take charge of the case, with Rubenstein and Osborn serving as independent consultants.

Rubenstein said he regularly works with students on litigation, but said that this was the first time a student came to him with an idea for a lawsuit.

“[Osborn’s] identification of this as an issue reflects the fact that these social networking sites are a concern of the student generation,” Rubenstein said. “The most important thing about this case to me is the initiative my students have shown.”

According to Osborn, it is unclear whether Google’s breach of privacy was intentional.

“I don’t know what Google’s motive is in all of this,” Osborn said. “I think they were just trying to jump-start their social network.”

Whether Google was aware of the problem could determine the outcome of the case, according to Rubenstein. If Google had known that the application infringed upon users’ privacy, the corporation could face greater consequences, he said.

Rubenstein also noted the lack of transparency about the changes that Google has made to Buzz in the last few weeks, and Osborn said that the team plans to pursue the case regardless of any future modifications to the application.

“[Buzz] has already violated people’s privacy,” Osborn said. “Damages have been incurred. And we want Google to change its conduct in the future.”

Historically similar cases have settled rather than gone to trial, Mason said. He suggested that monetary compensation might go to an appropriate public interest group or organization, rather than being distributed among all of Gmail’s users, but declined to estimate the amount of compensation sought by the plaintiffs.

Google has not made any public comments in response to the lawsuit and did not return requests for comment this weekend.

—Staff writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at zoe.weinberg@college.harvard.edu.

Tags