PA Man Sues Google Over Privacy Policy

It's class action so you can join him!

At the beginning of March, Google changed its online privacy policy, in case you somehow missed that news. The Internet behemoth announced the move in January, explaining that the new policy would allow the company to share user data across a wide variety of services. The company’s disclosure sent shockwaves through the Internet privacy community, where there were (and still are) huge concerns about one corporation retaining vast amounts of information about Internet users and their searches. Thirty-six state attorneys general fired off a letter to Google CEO Larry Page in protest. And now, one Pennsylvania man wants to drag Google into court.

Yesterday, Pennsylvania resident Ryan Hoey filed a class-action lawsuit in Philadelphia’s Federal Court at 6th and Market streets, naming California-based Google as the lone defendant. The suit centers on Google’s decision to connect user data with search data and charges the company with violations of both federal and Pennsylvania wiretapping laws and the Stored Electronic Communications Act, computer fraud, and invasion of privacy, among other things.

Google always had access to your name, list of contacts in Google+, physical location, IP address, and other specific information about you and your computer. And it also always had access to what you did online, what sites you visited, and what you searched for. But the company never connected those dots. In other words, your Google search results were not based on the content of some presumably private conversation you had on Gmail. And when you searched for “cars for sale,” you weren’t presented with BMW ads just because you recently watched a YouTube video that featured a Bimmer. But on March 1st of this year, Google started commingling the information, consolidating its 70 privacy policies for Google products like YouTube, Gmail and the ubiquitous search engine into one policy across the board.

As the company put it in a statement, “[I]f you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

And who wouldn’t want a simple, more intuitive Google experience, right?

Wrong, says Hoey. In the suit, he states that the policy change “violates Google’s prior privacy policies, which deceived and misled consumers by stating that Google would not utilize information provided by a connection with his or her use of one service, with any other service, for any reason, without the consumer’s consent.” And now that Google knows who is doing what at all times online, well, a lot of people are worried that this information could fall into the wrong hands: Big Brother.

As for Google’s suggestion that its motives were to improve a customer’s “experience,” Hoey’s suit seems to laugh at that assessment: “Google is now aggregating consumers’ personal information without consumers’ consent; has failed to provide a simple, effective opt-out mechanism; and Google’s primary undisclosed purpose for doing so is its own commercial advantage, private commercial gain, and financial benefit. Consumers are entitled to damages as a result.”

According to the suit, Google’s advertising revenue represented 97 percent of the company’s profits in 2011. The new privacy policy will provide the company with the ability to present more targeted advertising to the customer, thereby offering the potential to increase ad dollars dramatically. But c’mon, is anyone really shocked that a company with $72 billion in assets and nearly $10 billion in profit last year is guilty of corporate greed?

In any event, if you want in on the suit, note that Hoey’s lawyers are defining the “class” in the class-action suit as pretty much anyone who’s had a Google account over the years. As if that doesn’t take care of the overwhelming majority of the universe, there’s also a provision for owners of Android-powered phones, Android being the Google-owned operating system for mobile devices. Damages could be astronomical, considering the huge pool of possible plaintiffs.

Attorneys for Hoey did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Google spokesperson Chris Gaither declined to speak about the case, explaining that the company has not yet been served. (I forwarded a PDF of the complaint.) Gaither directed me to this “Google Official Blog” entry about the privacy policy. But before you click, know that when you’re reading it, they’ll be watching.