Yesterday, Google tentatively agreed to a series of changes in the way it collects data from Gmail, as part of a proposed settlement in Northern California District Court. If the court approves the settlement, Google will eliminate any collection of advertising-specific data before an email is accessible in a user’s inbox. The result likely won’t be noticeable to users, but it represents a real change to the way Google’s systems work, brought about after a voluntary settlement rather than a legal ruling.
The case, called Matera vs. Google, began in September 2015, when plaintiffs alleged the email scanning violated California and federal privacy law, calling it “the twenty-first-century equivalent of AT&T eavesdropping on each of its customers’ phone conversations, or of the postal service taking information from private correspondence.”
The suit was specifically brought on behalf of non-Gmail users, who haven’t agreed to have their emails scanned under Google’s Terms of Service. Because Gmail’s ad-targeting system draws on every email a Gmail user receives, it inevitably catches some messages from non-Gmail addresses. Scans that take place before emails are available to the user are particularly sensitive, since they’re not yet part of Gmail’s inbox. In real terms, that gap lasts only a few milliseconds, but plaintiffs argued it still constituted a breach of both the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the California Information Privacy Act.
The fix for Google was simple enough: close the gap. Google will still preemptively scan emails for malware and spam filtering, but any advertising-specific scans will be reserved until the email is accessible to the user. Reached by The Verge, Google declined to comment, but confirmed that the settlement would result in concrete technical changes once approved. The plaintiffs lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
That might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s one that’s increasingly troublesome for email companies — and lucrative for plaintiffs. Yahoo settled a similar lawsuit in January of this year, agreeing to delay its ad-scanning systems and pay up to $4 million in fees to the attorneys who filed the case. Google has also agreed to pay any costs associated with this week’s settlement, including up to $2.2 million in attorney fees and $2,000 for each of the class representatives.