Google Seeks Dismissal Of Privacy Claims Over Search Query Transmissions

Google is asking a federal judge in California to dismiss a long-running class-action complaint claiming the company violated people's privacy by transmitting their search queries to publishers.

In papers filed late last week, Google argues that the three search users who brought suit haven't shown that they were identified by publishers or other outside parties based on the alleged transmissions.

“No individual plaintiff alleges that he or she -- or any other Google Search user -- was actually identified by any search term, let alone that any harm resulted,” Google writes in a motion filed with U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in the Northern District of California. “Nor does the complaint plausibly allege that any of the three named plaintiffs was imminently identifiable through information in a referrer header.”

Google's motion comes in a lawsuit dating to 2010, when the company was sued for violating users' privacy by including their search queries in "referer headers" -- the information that is automatically transmitted to sites users click on when they leave Google. Some queries, like people's searches for their own names, can offer clues to users' identities. (Google no longer transmits search queries when people click on links in the results.)



Google agreed to settle the matter by donating $5.3 million to six nonprofits and schools -- including at least one that previously received money from Google. The settlement also requires Google to pay more than $2.1 million to the attorneys who brought the lawsuit.

But that settlement faced a challenge by Ted Frank, founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness, who argued that the deal didn't adequately compensate Google's users.

Frank's challenge went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which punted on the question of whether the settlement should have been approved. Instead, the Supreme Court returned the case to Davila, with instructions to decide whether the users experienced the kind of injury that warranted a federal lawsuit.

Google now contends the answer is no. The company says that transmitting search queries doesn't actually identify anyone -- even “vanity searchers” who conduct searches on their names.

“A search for a person’s name, if disclosed to a third-party website operator through a referrer header, reveals nothing about the searcher because the third party cannot possibly know who conducted the search,” Google writes. “It could be anyone.”

Google adds: “It is common knowledge that individuals often search names of potential employees, potential dates, and friends.”

The company is seeking a hearing on the matter in June. 

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