German court requires Google to stop ignoring customer emails

Emails sent to Google used to go unanswered by default

A German court has required Google to stop ignoring customer emails and start offering a way to communicate with the company.

The order was given by the Berlin Regional Court in a case brought by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV), which published the ruling on its website on Thursday.

Google users who email the address "support-de@google.com" receive an automatic reply notifying the emailer that Google will neither read nor reply due to the large number of requests sent to the address. After that sentence, the automatic reply directs Google users to various online self-help guides and contact forms.

This form of communication is incompatible with the German Telemedia Act, which says that companies must provide a way to ensure fast electronic communications with them, the VZBV had argued. The organization described Google's support address as a black box in which messages disappear into a void.

The court agreed with the VZBV and ruled that an automatically generated email does not meet the requirements of the law.

If it is clear from the outset that incoming emails will not be read, this cannot be seen as communication, the court said in its verdict. Communication at least requires a system that gives users the possibility to contact a company, it said.

This doesn't mean that every incoming email should now be checked and processed individually by a Google employee, the court said. But the company has to provide the possibility for users to contact it via email, it said. It was left up to Google how to deal with future incoming email.

If Google does not change its conduct, it could be fined up to €250,000 (about US$323,000), the court said.

The VZBV welcomed the verdict, saying that companies like Google should be able to provide reasonable support for their users.

Google can appeal the ruling. The company did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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