Google Settles Landmark Lawsuit Alleging Privacy Violations
On December 28, 2023, Google agreed to settle a lawsuit filed against it back in 2020, alleging the covert tracking of millions of users who believed they were browsing the internet privately. The lawsuit, which sought $5 billion in damages, accused Google of breaching privacy laws and wiretapping regulations. The settlement terms have not been disclosed, but it marks a crucial step in the ongoing battle for online privacy.
Here’s what happened:
Filed in 2020, the complaint aimed to represent millions of Google users since June 1, 2016, seeking a minimum of $5,000 in damages per user. The core allegation was that Google, through its analytics, cookies, and apps, continued to track users' online activities, even when they activated the "Incognito" mode on Google Chrome or other browsers' "private" browsing mode.
The plaintiffs argued that Google's promises of private browsing were deceptive, highlighting that the tech giant tracked and collected browsing history and other web activity data regardless of users' attempts to protect their privacy. Even when users followed Google's recommendation to use a browser in "private browsing mode," Google allegedly persisted in tracking, collecting, and identifying their browsing data in real-time, “violating federal wiretapping laws and consumers' privacy rights.”
Some other points made by the plaintiffs are as follows:
Google tracks and collects consumer browsing history and other web activity data no matter what safeguards consumers undertake to protect their data privacy. Indeed, even when Google users launch a web browser with “private browsing mode” activated (as Google recommends to users wishing to browse the web privately), Google nevertheless tracks the users’ browsing data and other identifying information
Google’s practices infringe upon users’ privacy; intentionally deceive consumers; give Google and its employees power to learn intimate details about individuals’ lives, interests, and internet usage; and make Google “one stop shopping” for any government, private, or criminal actor who wants to undermine individuals’ privacy, security, or freedom. Through its pervasive data tracking business, Google knows who your friends are, what your hobbies are, what you like to eat, what movies you watch, where and when you like to shop, what your favorite vacation destinations are, what your favorite color is, and even the most intimate and potentially embarrassing things you browse on the internet—regardless of whether you follow Google’s advice to keep your activities “private.” Indeed, notwithstanding consumers’ best efforts, Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it.
Google attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed by emphasizing the warning it displayed when users activated Chrome's incognito mode. The message informed users that their activity might still be visible to websites they visited, their employer or school, or their internet service provider. However, in August of 2023, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that Google's defense hinged on the assumption that users had consented to data collection during private browsing, a claim she deemed unsubstantiated.
It's crucial to understand that enabling incognito or private mode in a web browser merely prevents the local storage of browsing history on the user's device. However, the recent legal battle emphasizes that this does not guarantee true privacy, as websites using advertising technologies and analytics APIs can still track users within the incognito session and correlate their activities. This privacy lawsuit against Google underscores the growing concerns surrounding online privacy and the challenges users face in safeguarding their personal information. As technology continues to advance, it becomes increasingly imperative for both users and tech companies to navigate this delicate balance between innovation and privacy protection.
While the terms of the settlement remain undisclosed, both parties have agreed to a binding term sheet through mediation. A formal settlement is expected to be presented for court approval by February 24, 2024. The outcome of this case could set a precedent for future legal battles related to online privacy, prompting tech companies to reevaluate their data tracking practices and ensuring transparent communication with users regarding their data collection policies.