Commentary

Google's Privacy Settlement With Vanity Searchers Draws Opposition

Google's proposed $8.5 million settlement of a privacy class-action has drawn an objection from the advocacy group Center for Class Action Fairness.

The deal, which was revealed last year in court papers, calls for Google to donate around $6 million to various nonprofits. If approved by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in the Northern District of California, the settlement will resolve allegations that the company “leaked” search users' names to publishers and advertisers via referrer headers -- the information that Google automatically transmits when users click the links on the search results.

The user who initially sued, Paloma Gaos, alleged that she conducted searches for her own name, as well as her family members' names, and clicked on links on the Google search results. Therefore, she said, Google disclosed her "sensitive personal information" -- as well as that of every other vanity searcher -- to third parties by transmitting the search queries to third parties.

That proposed settlement doesn't do much to compensate people whose names might have been leaked, the Center for Class Action Fairness argues. The organization -- which has also opposed other settlements -- says the $8.5 million fund should be distributed to users, and not to nonprofits.

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Plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging trillions of dollars in statutory damages on behalf of a class consisting of more than one hundred million people, and then settled it for $8.5 million, of which the class members will see not one penny,” the Center for Class Action Fairness says in court papers filed on Friday. “Instead, the entire net settlement fund will go third-party ... recipients, even though it would be practicable to allow class members to recover.”

The Center for Class Action Fairness goes on to propose that Google users who think their privacy was violated could put in claims and then, if necessary, enter a lottery.

Whether that proposal gains traction remains to be seen -- although the idea of a lottery to determine class-action payouts probably raises more questions than it answers.

Meanwhile, some privacy advocates have made it clear that they're opposed to the settlement -- though their major objection is different. The privacy groups point out that the deal allows Google to continue to leak users' names. “The proposed settlement is bad for consumers, bad for online privacy, and does nothing to change Google’s business practices,” the organizations recently said in a letter asking the Federal Trade Commission to oppose the deal. “It is not just a bad or imperfect settlement; it is a farce.”

As of Monday, the FTC hasn't publicly weighed in on the case.

Google no longer transmits search queries when people click on organic search links, but still sends search queries to AdWords advertisers when users click on paid-search ads.

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