Google has reached a preliminary settlement agreement to pay $5 billion related to a class action lawsuit alleging the company violated users’ privacy by tracking their browsing activity even when using Incognito mode. The settlement marks the largest ever payout for a privacy violation case in US history.
Timeline of the Lawsuit
The lawsuit originated in 2020 when plaintiffs alleged that Google continued collecting browsing data on Chrome users who had activated Incognito mode under the assumption that their activity would not be tracked.
Key events in the lawsuit:
June 2020: Lawsuit filed alleging Google deceived consumers by tracking their activity despite using Incognito mode specifically to avoid tracking. Plaintiffs seek $5 billion in damages.
June 2021: Federal judge rejects Google’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit. Allows lawsuit to move forward on claims related to breach of contract and violations of federal wiretap law.
December 2022: The US Supreme Court rejects Google’s appeal seeking to dismiss the lawsuit under the Federal Wiretap Act. This paved the way for the lawsuit to proceed towards trial.
December 28, 2023: Google and plaintiffs announce a preliminary $5 billion settlement, pending final approval by a federal judge.
The preliminary settlement has a total value of up to $5 billion. Key terms include:
Payout: Google to create a settlement fund of $5 billion to pay out claims from a class likely to exceed millions of Google users.
Changes to Chrome: Google commits to more prominently informing users that Incognito mode does not prevent Google from collecting personal browsing data. Changes will clarify that only third-party sites are prevented from tracking activity during Incognito sessions.
Independent assessor: Google will retain a third party professional assessor to conduct bi-annual assessments focused on privacy measures in Chrome. Findings will be made public.
Background on the Incognito Mode Privacy Issues
Incognito mode in Chrome is marketed as enabling users to browse the internet “in private” without their activity being collected and stored by either Google or third-party websites.
However, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that Google continued to collect certain types of identifying data on users’ activity through tactics like:
- Associating incognito browsing sessions with Google accounts signed into the browser
- Using Google Analytics and other services to track and record activity
- Linking incognito activity to IP addresses which could identify a user
Despite Google’s arguments that it had always disclosed this activity could still occur, the judge upheld claims its disclosures were inadequate given how Incognito is portrayed as “private” browsing.
Impact and What Comes Next
The settlement marks a major victory for consumer privacy advocates and demonstrates increased scrutiny and liability for big tech companies’ data collection practices.
If approved, the settlement would resolve Google’s largest legal liability related to consumer privacy. However it may still face regulatory action in Europe related to Chrome’s privacy policies.
Looking forward, experts say Google and other browser developers will need to overhaul how private browsing modes are positioned to users. Simply adding more verbose legal disclosures likely won’t suffice anymore given heightened privacy expectations.
Settlement approval hearings are expected in 2023 but appeals could delay final resolution into 2024. Affected users are not required to take any action to receive settlement compensation if approved.
Key Details of the Settlement
|Changes to Incognito Disclosures
|More prominent warnings that Google still collects some personal data
|Independent Privacy Assessments
|Google subject to bi-annual audits by a professional privacy firm
|Covered Time Period
|June 1, 2016 – June 30, 2022
|Expected Payouts to Consumers
|To be determined, likely small amounts to millions of impacted users
This settlement closes a three-year legal battle over one of Google’s most used products after allegations that private browsing promises were deceptive. Despite arguments over legal technicalities, this culminates in a strong statement upholding assumptions that “private browsing” should fully prevent tracking by the browser developer. Google remains embattled in other lawsuits and regulator inquiries, but this case shaped up as arguably the largest threat to date regarding perceptions and trust in how Google handles consumer data.
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