Privacy lawsuit: Google to delete billions of records got from ‘Incognito’ mode searches
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Google is still facing legal threats on the regulatory frontier that could have a far bigger impact on its business, depending on the outcomes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Privacy lawsuit: Google to delete billions of records got from ‘Incognito’ mode searches

The lawsuit accused Google of tracking Chrome users' internet activity even when they had switched to the ‘Incognito’ setting that is supposed to shield them from being shadowed by the company


Google has agreed to purge billions of records containing personal information collected from more than 136 million people in the US surfing the internet through its Chrome web browser.

The records purge comes as part of a settlement in a lawsuit accusing the search giant of illegal surveillance. The data deletion will also apply outside the United States.

June 2020 lawsuit against Google

The details of the deal emerged in a court filing on Monday (April 1), more than three months after Google and the attorneys handling the class-action case disclosed they had resolved a June 2020 lawsuit targeting Chrome's privacy controls.

Among other allegations, the lawsuit accused Google of tracking Chrome users' internet activity even when they had switched the browser to the “Incognito” setting that is supposed to shield them from being shadowed by the Mountain View, California, company.

Google vigorously fought the lawsuit until US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers rejected a request to dismiss the case last August, setting up a potential trial. The settlement was negotiated during the next four months, culminating in Monday's disclosure of the terms, which Rogers still must approve during a hearing scheduled for July 30 in Oakland, California, federal court.

What does settlement imply?

The settlement requires Google to expunge billions of personal records stored in its data centers and make more prominent privacy disclosures about Chrome's Incognito option when it is activated. It also imposes other controls designed to limit Google's collection of personal information.

Consumers represented in the class-action lawsuit won't receive any damages or any other payments in the settlement, a point that Google emphasised in a Monday statement about the deal.

“We are pleased to settle this lawsuit, which we always believed was meritless," Google said.

The company asserted it is only being required to “delete old personal technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalisation.”

Major victory for personal privacy

In court papers, the attorneys representing Chrome users painted a much different picture, depicting the settlement as a major victory for personal privacy in an age of ever-increasing digital surveillance.

The lawyers valued the settlement at USD 4.75 billion to USD 7.8 billion, relying on calculations based primarily on the potential ad sales that the personal information collected through Chrome could have generated in the past and future without the new restrictions.

Settlement doesn’t shield Google from personal lawsuits

The settlement also doesn't shield Google from more lawsuits revolving around the same issues covered in the class-action case. That means individual consumers can still pursue damages against the company by filing their own civil complaints in state courts around the US.

Investors apparently aren't too worried about the settlement terms affecting the digital ad sales that account for the bulk of the more than USD 300 billion in annual revenue pouring into Google's corporate parent, Alphabet Inc. Shares in Alphabet rose nearly 3 per cent during Monday's afternoon trading.

Austin Chambers, a lawyer specialising in data privacy issues at the firm Dorsey & Whitney, described the settlement terms in the Chrome case as a “welcome development” that could affect the way personal information is collected online in the future.

“This prevents companies from profiting off of that data, and also requires them to undertake complex and costly data deletion efforts,” Chambers said. “In some cases, this could have a dramatic impact on products built around those datasets.”

Bigger legal threats ahead for Google

Google is still facing legal threats on the regulatory frontier that could have a far bigger impact on its business, depending on the outcomes.

After the US Justice Department outlined its allegations that the company is abusing the dominance of its search engine to thwart competition and innovation during a trial last fall, a federal judge is scheduled to hear closing arguments in the case on May 1 before issuing a ruling anticipated in the autumn.

Google is also facing potential changes to its app store for smartphones powered by its Android software that could undercut its revenue from commissions after a federal jury last year concluded the company was running an illegal monopoly. A hearing examining possible revisions that Google may have to make to its Play Store is scheduled for late May.

Other settlements by Google in recent past

Google recently settled several other lawsuits.

In 2022, it paid almost USD 400 million to settle claims by US states that it tracked the location of users who had opted out of location services on their devices.

In 2023, it agreed to a USD 700 million settlement with a group of US states that had accused it of crushing competition to its Play Store on Android devices.

(With agency inputs)

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