SAN JOSE -- Google won a significant court victory Tuesday when a federal judge denied a request to combine several privacy complaints into a single class-action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of millions of people who have used the popular Gmail service.
While the ruling doesn't settle the underlying dispute, the decision by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh is a setback for the plaintiffs in a case that strikes at one of Google's most popular online services. Google might have faced massive damages in a class-action suit, while plaintiffs' attorneys may find it more difficult to prevail in multiple separate cases.
The lawsuits argue that Google violated privacy and wiretapping laws by scanning Gmail users' messages in order to show them advertisements. They also contend Google also used its technology to gather information that was compiled in secret profiles of Google account-holders.
Attorneys made similar claims on behalf of non-Gmail users who sent messages to people with Gmail accounts, and on behalf of students at schools that use Gmail.
Google has denied wrongdoing, saying it simply uses automated programs to scan for keywords that can trigger relevant ads. The company also argued that users gave consent because they had ample notice of the practice through Google's policy statements, news coverage and other public information.
Koh previously rejected Google's motion to dismiss the claims. But she ruled Tuesday that it isn't possible to reach a broad conclusion about whether all the affected email users received sufficient notice to give consent. As a result, she said the question has to be answered for much narrower groups of individuals, rather than a single class of plaintiffs.