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Lawsuit against Google over Gmail faces hurdle, U.S. judge says

An employee answers phone calls at the switchboard of the Google office in Zurich August 18, 2009. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
An employee answers phone calls at the switchboard of the Google office in Zurich August 18, 2009. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Dan Levine

SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Thursday said some plaintiffs accusing Google of improperly scanning their email faced a significant hurdle in their attempt to move forward with the lawsuit as a class action.

Litigation brought by nine plaintiffs, some Gmail users, some not, was consolidated before U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, last year. The plaintiffs maintain Google violated several laws, including federal anti-wiretapping statutes by systematically crossing the "creepy line" to read private email messages in order to profit, according to court documents.

The case is being closely watched as it could alter how tech companies provide email service.

Koh must decide whether the lawsuit can proceed as a class action, which would allow the plaintiffs to sue as a group and give them more leverage to extract a larger settlement. However, at a hearing on Thursday, Koh said plaintiff attorneys faced a "huge hurdle" to show that non-Gmail users were entitled to class action status.

Google argues in court papers that the identity of impacted non-Gmail users can only be ascertained by sending an email notice to all non-Gmail users whose addresses are on file in Google's systems, and then sifting through the responses. That kind of procedure would be unprecedented and unworkable, Google argued.

Koh did not issue a formal ruling on Thursday.

A group of media companies, including Reuters, has asked Koh to make public several documents that both sides submitted to the court under seal. Koh has not yet ruled on that request.

The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is In Re: Google Inc. Gmail Litigation, 13-md-2430.

(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Ken Wills)

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