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Google Seeks Court Approval of Search Privacy Settlement

Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Google Inc. asked a judge to approve a settlement of a lawsuit claiming the company transferred personal information contained in user searches to third parties including marketers and data brokers.

The lawsuit, before U.S. District Judge Edward Davila in San Jose, California, claims Google “consistently and intentionally” designed its searches to collect and send data - - including names, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, account numbers, medical information and political beliefs -- and that the information was sold and resold to “countless other third parties.”

Kassra Nassiri, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in the case, explained to Davila at a hearing today that users are concerned about their privacy because that data is now aggregated in such a way that any single Google search “will be associated with them in the future.”

The aggregation of personal information from searches “has turned into something else entirely,” making privacy concerns of “just five years ago seem pretty innocuous,” Nassiri told Davila.

Nassiri and Edward Johnson, a lawyer for Google, asked Davila for approval of a settlement requiring Google to post disclosures on a “Frequently Asked Questions” page of its website telling users whether their search queries are transmitted to third parties, and allowing them to make decisions about their privacy choices, according to a court filing.

Research Organizations

Google will also pay $8.5 million that will be distributed to privacy research organizations such as the World Privacy Forum in San Diego, and the Center for Information, Society and Policy at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, according to a filing.

Davila expressed skepticism about how many people will read Google’s Web page produced as a result of the settlement, and asked for detailed information about how the privacy organizations who will benefit from the agreement were selected.

Google’s lawyer, Johnson, said that the settlement also includes an “elaborate advertising campaign” to generate 200 million hits at various websites explaining the agreement.

The lawsuit and settlement “more than accomplishes the goal that the plaintiffs had in the first place,” which was to explain Google’s practices to its users, Johnson said.

‘Scrubbing’ Searches

According to the complaint, Google, in 2011, confirmed that it was selling individual user search queries to advertisers. At that time it began “scrubbing” searches when users click on “regular, organic search results” and continued transmitting search queries to third parties when users click on paid listings that come up in search results.

While the policy change was a “small win” for privacy advocates, it also proves how valuable the information is to the company because “Google no longer gives away this precious data for free, but will do so when it gets paid for it,” according to the complaint.

The case is Gaos v. Google, 10-cv-04809, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).

To contact the reporter on this story: Joel Rosenblatt in San Jose, California, at jrosenblatt@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net

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