Watchdog Groups Objecting To Google Privacy Suit Settlement

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A group of consumer watchdogs have raised objections to an $8.5 million settlement proposal for an Internet privacy lawsuit brought against Google, complaining that the deal doesn’t require Google to make any substantive changes and doesn’t really benefit consumers who were allegedly harmed in the case.

The new challenge is only the latest complaint about so-called cy pres settlements – in which the defendant agrees to pay attorneys’ costs and make cash donations to some nonprofit or academic groups, rather than pay the plaintiffs directly.

These have been negotiated by lawyers in a number of class-action privacy suits against Internet companies, where it’s viewed as difficult to distribute payments to potentially vast numbers of people who may have suffered relatively minor harm.  A cy pres settlement in another case, involving privacy complaints against Facebook’s ill-fated Beacon program, is now the subject of a challenge that’s been raised at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Google case involves a little-known, three-year-old class-action lawsuit that claimed the Internet search company violated users’ privacy by leaking their search queries – which may include names or other sensitive information, such as terms referring to medical conditions and the like – to operators of websites that the users may visit.

Since the suit was filed, Google has begun encrypting search queries if the searcher is signed into a Google account. But the company also says so-called referrer information is valuable for showing website operators how traffic comes to their sites.

As Silicon Beat reported earlier this summer, Google didn’t admit to any privacy violations in the proposed settlement and it isn’t required to change what information it shares. But the company agreed to amend its privacy disclosures to explain how their search terms may be revealed to a website operator, and under which types of circumstances.

Google also agreed to pay $8.5 million into a fund that, after subtracting attorneys’ fees, would be divided among seven nonprofit groups that promise to use the money on public education campaigns about technology and privacy. The groups include the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, the World Privacy Forum, the MacArthur Foundation and AARP.

But five other groups, led by the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, objected to the settlement this week in a letter to U.S. District Judge Edward Davila.

In their letter, which urges the judge to reject the settlement, the critics complain that the deal fails to require any substantive changes in Google’s practices and provides no monetary payment for any users who may have been harmed. Further, they argue that the groups that would get some of the money aren’t really in a position to do anything that would benefit the users and, except for the World Privacy Forum, don’t actually work on privacy issues.

The critics also contend that some of the proposed funding recipients are “favored charities” of Google, while other groups that have been more critical of the company were left off the list.  The critics don’t specifically propose themselves as more worthy candidates for funding, but they urged the judge to consider court guidelines that are intended to reduce favoritism in such grants.


Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.

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