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Definition of “Electronic Storage” Considered in Invasion of Privacy Lawsuit – eDiscovery Case Law


In Cheng v. Romo, No. 11-10007-DJC (D. Mass. Dec. 20, 2013), the interpretation of laws enacted prior to the modern Internet age served as a deciding factor in the outcome of this invasion of privacy lawsuit, which alleged a violation of the Stored Communications Act (SCA).

The plaintiff in this case had sued the defendant for violating the SCA by accessing his web-based emails without his authorization or consent. Here, the question was not whether the emails were read, as the defendant admitted to accessing the plaintiff’s emails. However, the defendant argued that because the plaintiff had previously opened the emails, they did not meet the definition of being in “electronic storage” as described by the SCA.

The question of whether these emails met the qualifications for “electronic storage” under the SCA was therefore addressed accordingly.

The definition of electronic storage as set forth under the SCA is “(A) any temporary, intermediate storage of a wire or electronic communication incidental to the electronic transmission thereof; and (B) any storage of such communication by an electronic communication service for purposes of backup protection of such communication[.]” The plaintiff argued that the emails at issue were covered by at least the second prong, (B), of the definition under the SCA.

In considering this case, Massachusetts District Judge Denise J. Casper recognized that a clear precedent had not been established by previous cases that dealt with similar issues. Several courts have addressed the question of web-based emails as “electronic storage” with consideration of the SCA, with mixed results. Two competing findings in particular were referred to, e.g., Theofel v. Farey-Jones, 359 F.3d 1066, 1075 (9th Cir. 2003), which found that web-based emails were in electronic storage under this statute; and United States v. Weaver, 636 F. Supp. 2d 769, 770-73 (C.D. III. 2009), which found that “[p]reviously opened emails stored by Microsoft for Hotmail [email system] users are not in electronic storage” in the context of a criminal subpoena.

The decision was further influenced by the fact that the SCA was enacted in 1986, and that the statute employed “vague language” in which the definition for electronic storage has not changed since the laws were enacted. For context, it was noted that in 1986, “the process of network communication was still in its infancy; the World Wide Web, and the Internet as we know it, did not arrive until 1990.”

At contention as well was the term “backup storage” in the SCA, which the defendant contended did not apply to the plaintiff’s emails, as he had not made copies of the emails to store elsewhere, and therefore the web-based emails were the only copies existent and were not backups. However, because the statute was written at a time before the modern email system, Judge Casper reasoned that since the defendant “used her web browser to access [plaintiff’s] emails, the text of those emails were transmitted to her own Internet browser, which is how she was able to see, and later print, [plaintiff’s] emails.” Therefore, it was reasonably inferenced that regardless of the number of times the emails were viewed through downloads of web page representations into web browsers, the web-based service “continued to store copies of those same emails” and were held in “storage of such communication by an electronic communication service for purposes of backup protection of such communication” – meeting the “electronic storage” definition of the SCA.

In this jury trial, a verdict was returned in favor of the plaintiff. The defendant’s movement to judge as a matter of law was denied, and the case closed.

So, what do you think? Should the court have significant leeway for interpretation of statutes referring to electronic information that date back to pre-Internet periods? Should web-based emails automatically be considered a form of backup storage, in light of the way these services are used today? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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