Consumers Urge Court To Approve Google $8.5 Million 'Referrer Header' Settlement

A group of consumers is asking a federal judge to grant final approval to a settlement requiring Google to pay $8.5 million to nonprofits in order to resolve allegations that the company wrongly “leaked” information about search users.

The consumers say in court papers filed on Friday that the deal is “fair, adequate and reasonable.” They say that no one has yet filed an objection to the settlement, and only 12 people out of more than 100 million Google search users have said they want to opt out of the settlement -- which will preserve their right to bring an individual lawsuit against the company.

“This minimal number of exclusions -- representing approximately 0.000012% of the class -- paired with absolutely no objections, demonstrates a favorable class reaction,” the consumers argue in a motion filed on Friday with U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in San Jose, Calif.

Davila, who tentatively approved the deal in March, has scheduled a hearing for Aug. 29.

If the settlement goes through, it will resolve a class-action lawsuit alleging that Google violated its privacy policy by including search queries in "referrer headers" -- the information that is automatically transmitted to sites that users click on when they leave Google. Some queries, like people's vanity searches on their own names, can offer clues to users' identities.

The deal calls for Google pay around $6 million to a total of six organizations -- Carnegie Mellon University, World Privacy Forum, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Stanford Law, Harvard's Berkman Center and the AARP Foundation.

The agreement also requires Google to tell users how it treats their search queries. The plaintiffs' lawyers are asking Davila to award them around $2.1 million in fees.

The litigation surrounding Google's alleged data leakage dates to 2010, when Paloma Gaos alleged in a class-action lawsuit that she conducted searches for her own name and then clicked on links on the Google search results. She argued that Google disclosed her "sensitive personal information" to third parties -- the sites she clicked on after conducting searches -- by transmitting her queries in the referrer headers.

The settlement agreement doesn't require Google to change its practices, but does call for the company to rework its privacy policy. But as a practical matter, Google no longer transmits search queries when people click on organic search links. The company still transmits search queries to AdWords advertisers, when users click on paid search ads.

When the deal was initially announced last September, some privacy advocates criticized it on the ground that it enabled Google to continue with the same practices that spurred the lawsuit. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, Consumer Watchdog, Center for Digital Democracy, Patient Privacy Rights and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse argued in court papers that the settlement would allow the company to continue leaking users' names and other personal information to publishers.

As of Monday afternoon, those groups haven't asked Davila to deny the deal final approval.
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