Google has agreed to pay $5 billion to settle a class action lawsuit accusing the company of illegally tracking users’ browsing activity even when using Chrome’s Incognito mode. The settlement could have major implications for user privacy protections going forward.
Background of the Lawsuit
The lawsuit dates back to 2020, when several Chrome users filed complaints alleging Google deceived consumers by not properly disclosing that their private browsing data was still being collected by Google’s advertising arm DoubleClick and other sites like Google Analytics and Google Ad Manager.
Specifically, the plaintiffs said Google led users to believe that enabling Incognito mode prevented the company from collecting browsing history, search history, and other personal information used to deliver targeted ads. However, private browsing data was allegedly being tracked regardless.
The lawsuit sought to obtain damages for users in the U.S. who used Chrome’s private mode since June 2016. Earlier this year, a judge ruled the suit could proceed as a class action on behalf of “millions” of Google users.
Details of the Settlement
According to court documents filed on December 28, 2023, Google has agreed to settle the case for a total of $5 billion. This would be one of the largest consumer privacy settlements ever.
As part of the settlement, Google has not admitted any wrongdoing but has agreed to provide more clear and accurate disclosures about Incognito mode tracking going forward.
Additionally, Google will pay $100 to $200 to each class member who files a valid claim, with total payouts capped at $5 billion. Unclaimed funds may be used to establish a privacy-centered organization consistent with the allegations of the case.
|Key Details of the Settlement
|Payout per Class Member
|$100 to $200
|New Disclosures Required
|Change in Practices
|No admission of wrongdoing
Reactions to the Settlement
The settlement has prompted mixed reactions from privacy advocates, legal experts, lawmakers, and Google itself.
Privacy groups like Fight for the Future have called the deal “a huge win for online privacy” that could set new precedents protecting people’s data. However, some feel the payout should have been higher given Google’s size.
Legal experts say the settlement serves notice that even technology giants can be challenged over deception around data practices. Whether practices will change remains uncertain.
Congressional lawmakers involved with privacy legislation have said regulators must closely scrutinize Google’s claims and disclosures about Incognito mode going forward.
In a statement, Google said: “While we strongly dispute the claims, after four years of litigation, both sides agreed that resolution of the matter, without any admission of liability, was in the interest of both parties and the court.”
What Happens Next?
Looking ahead, a final approval hearing for the settlement has been scheduled for April 2024. Assuming it gets court approval, Google will then be responsible for contacting class members and distributing individual payments.
More broadly, the lawsuit and massive settlement may spur other Big Tech companies to re-examine their own private browsing protections and disclosures to avoid similar legal action.
It also shines a spotlight on the data privacy issue as lawmakers wrestle with proposals like a federal privacy bill. As Congress debates more guardrails around tech companies’ data collection practices, the Incognito lawsuit will likely be frequently cited.
For Google specifically, Privacy Sandbox initiatives to limit cross-site tracking and profile-building could help address some of the practices at the heart of the Incognito complaints. Nonetheless, regulators will watch closely to see if Google’s treatment of Incognito browsing history changes in any substantive way.
Despite not admitting fault in the settlement, Google faces lingering doubts over whether users can ever truly browse the web privately – regardless of what mode they enable. Restoring that trust may prove challenging even with new disclosures and billions in payouts. The pressure is now on Google to proactively demonstrate stronger privacy protections moving forward.
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