Risk
3/9/2011
06:43 PM
Connect Directly
Google+
LinkedIn
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Google Again Sued Over Gmail Content Scanning

The latest complaint argues Google's disclosures are inadequate because nobody reads lengthy legal documents.

Attorneys representing former Gmail user Kelly Michaels of Smith County, Texas, have sued Google, claiming that its Gmail service violates users' privacy by scanning e-mail messages to serve relevant ads.

This is not the first time Google has faced such a suit. Another Texas resident, Keith Dunbar, made similar claims in November, 2010. It's an issue Google has been dealing with since Gmail was introduced in 2004.

At Google's request, the Dunbar suit has been sealed. However, in a reply filed prior to the sealing of the case, Google's attorneys provide highlighted terms of service and the company's privacy policy as exhibits to show that users are informed about how Gmail operates.

Michaels's complaint takes the novel approach of arguing that while Google asks users to accept its terms of service, the company doesn't require that users actually understand what they're agreeing to. Such comprehension is all but impossible, the complaint suggests, because terms of service documents are difficult to read, if they're read at all.

The complaint bemoans how users who wish to read Google's Terms of Service have to scroll through a small text box with something like 92 paragraphs or visit a 15-page print-friendly version. Then there's a separate Program Policy and Privacy Policy, each on different Web pages, and the Privacy Policy includes some 55 external links.

"None of the multiple pages or links provides an opportunity for a user to inquire about the meaning of any of the terms used or negotiate the addition or deletion of the terms of the documents the user is supposed to be accepting," the complaint says, as if there were any Terms of Service documents that supported the addition or deletion of specific terms. That may happen in face-to-face contract negotiation but Web contracts have traditionally been take-it-or-leave-it affairs.

The complaint goes on to observe that no less than U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts "has admitted he doesn't usually read the 'fine print' that is a condition for accessing some Web sites."

It's widely known that people don't read lengthy documents online, particularly dry legalese. There's even Internet shorthand for the phenomenon: "TL; DR," which stands for "too long; didn't read."

Sadly for the plaintiff, there's no legal recognition of "TL; DR," even if companies like Google and Facebook recognize the problem. Both companies have acknowledged how difficult it is to read and understand lengthy privacy and terms of service documents, and have tried to make them less impenetrable.

Readability also recently surfaced in the ongoing legal battle between Microsoft and Apple over whether the term "App Store" can be trademarked. Microsoft argued that Apple's court filing should be rejected because it uses an impermissibly small font. However, that claim is based on specific rules for document presentation set forth by the court.

Eric Goldman, associate professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law, characterized Dunbar v. Google last year as an "are-you-kidding-me? lawsuit" on his blog. He considers Michaels v. Google to be essentially the same.

"Both of these lawsuits feel like they should have been brought in 2004, not 2011," he wrote in an e-mail. "There is no additional merit to arguing the user agreement was 'TL; DR.'"

Goldman says that the most interesting thing about the case is its location, the Eastern District of Texas, a venue notorious in the past as a breeding ground for patent litigation.

"There have been some changes in patent litigation that may be reducing the amount of patent work taking place in that district," wrote Goldman. "Maybe some of those lawyers are going to repurpose into privacy plaintiff lawyers with their newly available time?"

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
Dark Reading Live EVENTS
INsecurity - For the Defenders of Enterprise Security
A Dark Reading Conference
While red team conferences focus primarily on new vulnerabilities and security researchers, INsecurity puts security execution, protection, and operations center stage. The primary speakers will be CISOs and leaders in security defense; the blue team will be the focus.
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: No, no, no! Have a Unix CRON do the pop-up reminders!
Current Issue
Security Vulnerabilities: The Next Wave
Just when you thought it was safe, researchers have unveiled a new round of IT security flaws. Is your enterprise ready?
Flash Poll
[Strategic Security Report] How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Problem
[Strategic Security Report] How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Problem
Enterprises are spending more of their IT budgets on cybersecurity technology. How do your organization's security plans and strategies compare to what others are doing? Here's an in-depth look.
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2017-0290
Published: 2017-05-09
NScript in mpengine in Microsoft Malware Protection Engine with Engine Version before 1.1.13704.0, as used in Windows Defender and other products, allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code or cause a denial of service (type confusion and application crash) via crafted JavaScript code within ...

CVE-2016-10369
Published: 2017-05-08
unixsocket.c in lxterminal through 0.3.0 insecurely uses /tmp for a socket file, allowing a local user to cause a denial of service (preventing terminal launch), or possibly have other impact (bypassing terminal access control).

CVE-2016-8202
Published: 2017-05-08
A privilege escalation vulnerability in Brocade Fibre Channel SAN products running Brocade Fabric OS (FOS) releases earlier than v7.4.1d and v8.0.1b could allow an authenticated attacker to elevate the privileges of user accounts accessing the system via command line interface. With affected version...

CVE-2016-8209
Published: 2017-05-08
Improper checks for unusual or exceptional conditions in Brocade NetIron 05.8.00 and later releases up to and including 06.1.00, when the Management Module is continuously scanned on port 22, may allow attackers to cause a denial of service (crash and reload) of the management module.

CVE-2017-0890
Published: 2017-05-08
Nextcloud Server before 11.0.3 is vulnerable to an inadequate escaping leading to a XSS vulnerability in the search module. To be exploitable a user has to write or paste malicious content into the search dialogue.