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Verdicts & Settlements

Google Agrees to Settle $5b “Incognito” Mode Lawsuit–Without Paying Anything

— April 4, 2024

Although Google has agreed to delete billions of potentially sensitive records, the company emphasized that it will not be required to pay any compensation to the plaintiffs.

Google has announced that it will settle a far-reaching consumer privacy lawsuit, which had accused the company of continuing to track users’ activity while in Chrome’s “incognito” mode.

According to The Guardian, the initial complaint alleged that Alphabet—the owner and parent company of Google—employed range of analytic programs, cookies, and applications to monitor consumers’ “incognito” movements and interactions.

Although Google has long maintained that Chrome’s “incognito” mode never promised total privacy, attorneys said that the company’s practices provided an “unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it.”

By inspecting user activity, Google could—for instance—ascertain sensitive information about its users’ relationship dynamics, shopping patterns, and pornography consumption patterns.

“Even when users are browsing the internet in ‘private browsing mode,’ Google continues to track them,” the lawsuit alleged. “Google’s tracking occurred and continues to occur no matter how sensitive or personal users’ online activities are.”

Google Search Screen
Google Search Screen; image courtesy of Simon via pixabay,

The terms of the settlement, writes The Guardian, were filed Monday in an Oakland, California-based federal court. However, the agreement remains tentative and is subject to review and approval by U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers.

If the settlement is approved in its current form, Google will soon update disclosures about the information it collects from “incognito” users. The company will also give consumers an option to block third-party tracking cookies for at least five years.

“The result is that Google will collect less data from users’ private browsing sessions, and that Google will make less money from the data,” attorneys said.

“This settlement ensures real accountability and transparency from the world’s largest data collector and marks an important first step toward improving and upholding our rights to privacy on the Internet,” court documents said.

Google, for its part, said that—while it supports the agreement’s approval—it strongly disagrees with the plaintiffs’ “legal and factual characterizations.”

The Guardian notes that, in the past, Google’s own executives had expressed concerns about the apparent difficulty in maintaining and marketing a private-browsing service.

“We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging,” Google Chief Marketing Officer Lorraine Twohill wrote to C.E.O. Sundar Pichai in a 2019 email.

Nonetheless, Google has since emphasized that any information collected from “incognito” users was never individualized.

“[Google is] happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalization,” Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda said in a statement.

Castaneda, adds N.P.R., also pointed out that the consumer class-action lawsuit had sought an estimated $5 billion in damages—but, under the terms of the settlement, Google will not provide any financial compensation to the plaintiffs or their attorneys.


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Google to destroy billions of private browsing records to settle lawsuit

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