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Google Agrees to Pay $8.5 Million to Settle Claims It Disclosed Internet Search Queries

Monday, July 29, 2013

Google Inc. has agreed to establish an $8.5 million fund to settle class allegations that it disclosed consumers' search queries to third parties without the consumers' knowledge or consent, under a motion for preliminary approval of class action settlement filed July 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (In re Google Referrer Header Privacy Litig., N.D. Cal., No. 5:10-cv-04809-EJD, motion for preliminary approval of settlement filed 7/19/13).

Under the proposed settlement agreement, the $8.5 million is intended to cover payments to specific cy pres recipients that “agree to devote the funds to promote public awareness and education, and/or to support research, development, and initiatives, related to protecting privacy on the Internet.” Administrative costs, incentive awards, and attorneys' fees and costs will also be deducted from that amount.

In addition, Google agreed to make privacy disclosures concerning user search queries on its website.

The settlement agreement is still subject to the court's approval. The plaintiffs requested an Aug. 23 hearing on their motion.

Data Allegedly Revealed in 'Referrer Headers.'

This putative class action consolidates two cases, Gaos v. Google Inc., No. 5:10-cv-4809-EJD, and Priyev v. Google Inc., No. 5:13-cv-0093-LHK. In both cases, the plaintiffs alleged that Google disclosed user search terms in URLs on a page of search results and in “referrer headers” to linked pages. The company disclosed the information to third parties to generate revenue, the plaintiffs alleged.

The settlement agreement defines a referrer header as follows: “An HTTP Referrer is information transmitted to a destination webpage by a web browser, typically when you click a link to that webpage. The HTTP Referrer contains the URL of the last webpage the browser visited.”

Besides revealing personal information like credit card numbers and Social Security numbers, search queries may reveal particularly sensitive user information such as religious beliefs and sexuality, the plaintiffs alleged.

In March 2012 in Gaos, the court held that Google's alleged violations of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2702, provided the injury in fact required for Article III standing (11 PVLR 639, 4/9/12).

On April 26, the plaintiffs in the two actions filed a consolidated complaint, which brought SCA and common law claims against Google. On April 30, the court granted the motion by all parties to consolidate the two cases (12 PVLR 787, 5/6/13).

More Than 100 Million in Putative Class

The proposed class would include more than 100 million individuals--all persons in the United States that submitted a search through Google from Oct. 25, 2006, to the filing of the motion for preliminary approval of the settlement--according to the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary approval.

The agreement does not specify the amount of attorneys' fees and costs to be awarded but notes that the plaintiffs may apply to the court for “reasonable” fees and costs. The pact also allows class counsel to apply for incentive awards of up to $5,000 for each of the three named plaintiffs.

After settlement administrative expenses, the class counsel fee award, and the incentive awards are paid, the agreement directs the balance of the settlement fund to be distributed to selected cy pres recipient organizations involved in privacy and consumer protection advocacy.

The pact also contains injunctive relief. “[U]sers will be given information about whether their search queries are transmitted to third parties and have the opportunity to make informed decisions about their privacy choices[,]” the motion said. Google has agreed to make such disclosures on its privacy “FAQ” web page, its “Key terms” web page, and its “Privacy FAQ for Google Web History” web page.

Kassra P. Nassiri, of Nassiri & Jung LLP, in San Francisco; Michael J. Aschenbrener, of Aschenbrener Law PC, in San Francisco; and Ilan Chorowsky, of Progressive Law Group LLC, in Chicago, represented the plaintiffs and the putative class. Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel at Google, represented the defendant.


Full text of the motion for preliminary approval of class action settlement is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/In_re_GOOGLE_REFERRER_HEADER_PRIVACY_LITIGATION_Docket_No_510cv04/1.

Full text of the settlement agreement is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/In_re_GOOGLE_REFERRER_HEADER_PRIVACY_LITIGATION_Docket_No_510cv04/2.

Full text of a stipulation and proposed order for consolidation of class actions, which includes the consolidated complaint, is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/In_re_GOOGLE_REFERRER_HEADER_PRIVACY_LITIGATION_Docket_No_510cv04/3.

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