Press Suckered By Anti-Google Group's Bogus Claim That Gmail Users Can't Expect Privacy

from the no-expectation-of-accuracy dept

Okay, so as a bunch of folks have been sending over today, there's been a bit of a furor over a press release pushed out by Consumer Watchdog, a hilariously ridiculous group that has decided that Google is 100% pure evil. The "story" claims that Google has admitted in court that there is no expectation of privacy over Gmail. This is not actually true -- but we'll get to that. This story is a bit complex because the claims in most of the news coverage about this are simply wrong -- but I still think Google made a big mistake in making this particular filing. So, first, let's explain why the coverage is completely bogus trumped up bullshit from Consumer Watchdog, and then we'll explain why Google still shouldn't have made this filing.

First off, you may recall Consumer Watchdog from previous stunts such as a putting together a hilariously misleading and almost 100% factually inaccurate video portrayal of Eric Schmidt, which was all really part of an effort to sell more copies of its founder's book (something the group flat out admitted to us in an email). They're not a consumer watchdog site -- they're a group that makes completely hogwash claims to try to generate attention on a campaign to attack Google.

The press release from Consumer Watchdog fits along its typical approach to these things: take something totally out of context, put some hysterical and inaccurate phrasing around it, dump an attention-grabbing headline on it and send it off to the press. In this case, it claimed that Google had said in a court filing that you have no expectation of privacy with Gmail. That got a bunch of folks in the press to bite with wildly inaccurate headlines: The first three of those headlines are simply flat-out factually incorrect. I mean, not even close, and it's fairly incredible that those come from the three more "established" or "mainstream" news publications. The last three are slightly more correct, but still completely miss the point. The best debunking of these claims so far comes from Nilay Patel at the Verge who breaks down the details. The filing, which is from over a month ago, is a response to an absolutely, monumentally bogus class action lawsuit filed against Google, arguing, hilariously, that it's a violation of wiretap laws to put ads next to emails based on the text of those emails. No, seriously.

As Patel points out, first, if you put the argument back into context, it's not even about Gmail users -- as the top three headlines above falsely state. Google is arguing that non-Gmail users are consenting to the fact that when they send an email, the ISPs who receive the email will automatically process them. This should not be controversial. At all. Without that concept email doesn't work. As the filing states (which the folks hyping this ignore):
Non-Gmail users who send emails to Gmail recipients must expect that their emails will be subjected to Google's normal processes as the [email] provider for their intended recipients.
In other words, there's no "there" there. All Google was arguing was that courts have held that if you are using a communication service, there's a perfectly reasonable (in fact, expected) recognition that the service provider will have the right to process some information about that communication. In the context of the case that Google cites, the infamous Smith v. Maryland, the argument is that the business provider is reasonably expected to be able to track the user's activity. That's not controversial. The controversial step that Smith v. Maryland then makes is to argue that because the service provider has a right to that basic information it means that the end user has no expectation of privacy with regards to the government getting access to the same info. That's the problem with Smith v. Maryland -- the failure to recognize that massive difference between me (1) consenting to let my phone company record who I make phone calls to in exchange for the ability to make calls and (2) the expectation that it's okay for the government to collect that very same info without a warrant.

Google's citation of Smith v. Maryland is to make the first half of that argument -- showing that courts recognize the obvious: that when you use a communication service, there are certain aspects of information that you know the service provider is going to have access to. Without that you don't have email, or (realistically speaking) the internet.

So, this is all much ado about nothing.

Except... I still think it was a mistake for Google to use this legal argument, and I'm somewhat surprised Google's legal team let this go through in place. First, Google does not need this citation to make this point. There are other cases that can make this point effectively without touching on the government spying aspect. But, the real reason why this is a mistake is that Google has given fairly strong indications in recent statements that it's willing to fight back against certain government requests for user info (and that it's done so in the past). In those cases, the government is absolutely going to cite Smith v. Maryland as its evidence that users have no expectation of privacy in their communications and now they'll also point out that Google cited the case approvingly. Google will want to argue that Smith v. Maryland is outdated law and was decided wrongly and/or in a different time under a different technology ecosystem. And this is a very, very strong argument that has a good chance of winning. But the ability of the government to point out that Google has, in other cases, cited the Smith precedent approvingly -- even if it was really only part of the Smith precedent -- could undermine their arguments against Smith in future cases down the road.

Either way: the freakout here is totally manufactured by a bogus, laughable group that is spreading ideas that would do massive harm to the internet based on a near total ignorance of how things work. Yes, people are on edge given the NSA revelations, but this "gotcha" is no "gotcha" at all. It's just more evidence of the sheer duplicity of Consumer Watchdog. That said, it was still short-sighted for Google to make this claim in a filing. They didn't need the citation, and while it may help them win this ridiculous class action lawsuit, it may come back to bite them down the road in more important cases.

Filed Under: 3rd party doctrine, consumer watchdog, email, fearmongering, government, hype, journalism, privacy, smith v. maryland, surveillance
Companies: consumer watchdog, google


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  1. identicon
    Nic Stevens, 14 Aug 2013 @ 9:46pm

    Well private gmail is a joke...

    Once upon a time I engaged in a brief (2-3 emails) conversation with the manager of a burger joint nearby complaining about service and noise. I have never ever in my life been employed by a food service company and my entire work experience has been in telecom, industrial control and aerospace. Weeks later this same person appeared in "Updates from your Linkedin Network". Now the only way LinkedIn would have any idea that me and this person ever spoke would be from the emails I never shared with them. Because I have had no food service or relevant experience to tie me to a burger manager, I must assume that my emails were read by LinkedIn and that would have to have been done through GMail.

    (I will admit that since this place is frequented by employees of Boeing nearby there is a slightly tenable connection to aerospace, except I hadn't worked for Boeing since 1986)

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