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June 1, 2010
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Aspen law firm, two attorneys take on Google

ASPEN - An Aspen law firm has filed a class-action complaint on behalf of millions of Google e-mail users, alleging the Internet host violated their privacy.

Filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court of Denver, the lawsuit seeks to attain class-action status on behalf of users of Google's free e-mail service, Gmail.

Aspen attorneys John Case and Lauren Maytin are the two plaintiffs who represent the users in the class-action suit, which was filed by the Aspen firm Thomas Genshaft PC. Neither Maytin nor Case are members of Thomas Genshaft PC.

The suit accuses California-based Google of violating three federal communications laws - the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Stored Communications Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act - after it rolled out its Google Buzz social networking service Feb. 9. The suit also alleges violation of privacy under Colorado common law.

According to allegations in the suit, Google Buzz exposed Gmail users' private information - on their public profiles - by unveiling with whom they e-mailed or chatted the most. The information, otherwise known as a "following list," was released without the users' explicit permission, the suit says.

"Users were not warned that their lists would be automatically visible to the public," the court filing says, adding that the "activation of Buzz disclosed not only portions of users' contact lists, but more specifically disclosed the contacts with whom users communicate most often, and making those lists publicly searchable on the Internet."

The suit alleges that Google "deceptively portrayed" to Gmail users that they could bypass the Buzz service, but "in reality, no matter which button the user selected, Google Buzz was automatically activated and embedded into the user's Gmail sidebar."

The Aspen-based lawsuit follows several other legal actions taken against Google over its Buzz service.

Harvard Law School filed a class-action suit seven days after Google Buzz debuted, and law firms in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have filed a similar case on behalf of a Florida woman, according to published reports.

Congress also has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google amid complaints about Google Buzz's alleged breach of consumer privacy.

While Google has addressed the situation by allowing users to shut off its Buzz option, that effort "does not alleviate the privacy concerns of the general public," claims the Aspen lawsuit.

The suit adds that "when plaintiffs and other class members created Gmail accounts, they signed up for e-mail services. Their expectations did not include social networking."

Along with monetary damages, the suit seeks a court order that would force Google to make Buzz an "opt-in" service for Gmail users, and stop Google from creating social networking lists from its Gmail users' private contacts.

Those involved in the class-action suit could number in the millions, as there are 37 million subscribers to Gmail, the suit says. While the suit does not specify how much in total monetary damages is being sought, at least $5 million is required for class-action certification in federal court.

Peter Thomas, who filed the complaint, and Case, one of the plaintiffs, could not be reached for comment Monday. The other named plaintiff, Maytin, declined to discuss the suit when contacted Monday.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jun 1, 2010 12:16PM Published Jun 1, 2010 12:15PM Copyright 2010 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.