The comedian George Carlin used to riff on oxymorons, phrases he found absurd such as “military intelligence” and “business ethics.” To that list we could add “online privacy.” The internet has always been a public place which gives people the illusion of private communication because of how they access it, from a handheld device or from their own computer. Recently in a ruling on a class-action lawsuit concerning Yahoo’s practice of scanning emails, a federal judge affirmed that online privacy is not for everybody.
In the lawsuit brought against Yahoo by email users who did not use Yahoo’s email service but corresponded with people who did, Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for Northern California signed off on a settlement which allows Yahoo to continue scanning the emails of non-Yahoo users without their consent. The major change from Yahoo’s previous practice is that it must do so only while the emails are on its servers, rather than while they are in transit.
That satisfies the letter of the law while doing nothing to redress the grievances of non-Yahoo email users. The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit received $5,000 each. The Judge awarded the plaintiffs’ lawyers 4 million dollars in total. A 45 page PDF of the settlement is here, and the summary starts at page 40. Google is being sued in a similar class-action which is pending before Judge Koh.
Since most people don’t fully read the terms and conditions before signing up for online services, it’s doubtful whether many users of Yahoo, Google, or similar free webmail services are aware those companies are scanning their emails for the purpose of targeted advertising, as well as scanning the other half of the exchange coming from their correspondent. Other users who are aware of the scanning are resigned to accepting it as the price of free webmail. And the “price of free” is another oxymoron Mr. Carlin himself might have gleefully noted.