Google Can't Shake Privacy Suit Over 'Vanity Searches'

Siding against Google, a federal judge in California has refused to dismiss a 10-year-old class-action complaint alleging the company violated people's privacy by transmitting their search queries to publishers.

In a ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in the Northern District of California rejected Google's argument that people who sued didn't show how they were injured by the company.

Google specifically contended that the group of users who sued didn't show they had been identified by publishers, or other outside parties, based on the alleged transmissions.

Instead, Davila ruled that the users have a right to proceed against Google over allegations that it violated a federal law that protects electronic communications.

“Congress has ... identified a concrete privacy interest in communications stored with electronic communication service providers -- even if those communications cannot be linked to the user,” Davila wrote. “After all, information need not be personally identifying to be private.”

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The decision comes in a battle dating to 2010, when Google 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 lawsuit by donating $5.3 million to six nonprofits and schools, and to pay more than $2.1 million to the attorneys who brought the lawsuit.

That settlement was challenged 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 returned the case to Davila and directed him to decide whether the users experienced the kind of injury that warranted a federal lawsuit.

Google then asked Davila to dismiss the case altogether, arguing that the information transmitted in referrer headers doesn't 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 argued in papers filed earlier this year. “It could be anyone.”

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