Consumer service lawsuit looms for Google in Germany

Google should start answering customer service emails, German consumer organizations said

A lawsuit against Google's customer service practices in Germany is looming after the company declined to sign a document promising German consumer organizations to start answering customer emails individually.

Last month, Google received an ultimatum from the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV). The group said Google should declare by Monday, May 6 that it would provide customer service by responding individually to users' questions sent by email instead of sending automatic replies.

Google declined to sign the document on Monday because the company thinks it adheres to German law, said Carola Elbrecht, the VZBV's project manager for consumer rights in the digital world, on Wednesday.

Last month, the VZBV said that it would sue Google if the company did not sign the document before Monday. However, the group has not yet sued Google, Elbrecht said. "We are now examining our options," she said, adding that the VZBV still was in the process of discussing possible next steps with its lawyer. This might take some time because of public holidays in Germany, she added.

A Google spokesman reached on Wednesday could not immediately reply to a request for comment.

By not responding to user emails individually, Google violates the German Telemedia Act, according to the VZBV. That law requires businesses to provide an email address to allow customers to contact them quickly, it said.

However, anyone who emails support-de@google.com receives an automatic reply stating that Google is unable to read the message due to the large number of emails sent to that address. The same autoreply also says that users cannot reply to the email they just received due to "technical difficulties" and directs them to Google's forums and support pages instead.

The VZBV contends that this violates the Telemedia Act because it is not enough to provide an email address that leads into emptiness, it said. Sending an automatic reply is not sufficient, it said.

The Federation of German Consumer Organisations not only watches Google's practices closely. On Tuesday for instance, it announced it won a case against Apple in the Regional Court of Berlin that ruled that Apple violates German data protection law by asking for users' broad, overall consent in its privacy policy.

It also sued Facebook in December last year because the social network keeps sharing personal data with third-party app makers without getting explicit consent from users. And in January, the VZBV sued computer game distributor Valve because it prohibits Steam-gamers from reselling their games. Both the Facebook and the Valve case are ongoing.

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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