Harvard Alumni Join in Lawsuit Against Google

Thirteen Harvard alumni have joined a group of 710 plaintiffs in a privacy lawsuit against Google, alleging that the company had been intercepting their e-mail content through the Google Apps for Education platform from 2011 to 2014.

In the complaint filed last week, the plaintiffs claim that Google violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act by scanning e-mail content for the company’s own commercial purposes and without the consent of the faculty, students, and staff that use the google education platform.

Ray E. Gallo, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Google can intercept content for purposes that are “ordinary and customary in the course of providing email service” under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, although that provision does not necessarily include scanning for advertisements.

“It’s not an essential part of providing email services,” he said.

Many institutions that use the Google Apps for Education suite, including Harvard, signed contracts with Google that prohibit the company from intercepting content for marketing purposes, according to Gallo. These agreements were often made known to users upon adoption of the Google Apps for Education platform.

The complaint cites an archived FAQ section of Harvard University Information Technology’s website from 2013, which explicitly states that Google “will not use user data for purposes other than maintaining the Google Apps for Harvard service.”

According to Gallo, an April 2014 statement from Google implies that the company had been violating its contracts with universities until April 2014. The company announced then that it had “permanently removed all ads scanning” from the Google Apps for Education platform in April 2014.

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, plaintiffs could receive $10,000 in statutory damages from this case.

This case is one of several e-mail privacy lawsuits filed against Google. Chris J. Hoofnagle, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in internet and information privacy law, said that this case differs from many similar class-action lawsuits.

He describes the case as a “mass joinder” lawsuit, which means that all 710 plaintiffs chose to become involved in the case, rather than involuntarily being included in a class of plaintiffs.

“It’s a much more powerful posture,” Hoofnagle said.

Hoofnagle described the lawsuit as a procedural “nightmare” for Google because of the sheer number of plaintiffs.

“In a normal suit, you depose all of the plaintiffs. Class action, you depose some representative plaintiffs. But presumably in this case, Google would depose all [710],” he said.

Stephen J. Morrison ’15, one of the 13 Harvard plaintiffs in the case, said he “ironically” found out about the lawsuit because of a targeted ad online, and became concerned about the greater consequences of Google’s alleged privacy violation. He then joined the class of plaintiffs.

“I intend to do everything in my power to discourage… the emergence of a global marketplace for personal information, which has far-reaching and disturbing implications,” he said.

Gallo said that the defendant has yet to respond to the complaint.

Crimson staff writer Marella A. Gayla can be reached at marella.gayla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MarellaGayla.

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