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Google agrees to delete web browsing data as it settles ‘incognito’ lawsuit

Google agrees to delete web browsing data as it settles ‘incognito’ lawsuit
Google has agreed to settle a lawsuit over its 'incognito' function. (Photo: David Gray/Bloomberg)

Google said it would delete millions of records of users’ browsing activities as part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleged it tracked people without their knowledge. 

The case, filed in 2020, alleged the Alphabet Inc. unit surreptitiously collected data from people using its popular Chrome web browser in a private “incognito” browsing mode. While that function lets users turn off data collection when using the Chrome browser, other Google tools used by websites, such as advertising technology, scoop up their data anyway, according to the suit.

Google, which agreed to settle in December, will expunge “billions” of data records that reflect people’s private browsing, according to details that were made public on Monday in a filing at San Francisco federal court. Google also said it made several changes to its disclosures to clarify how people’s data is collected as well as what activity is visible to websites when users browse in “incognito” mode. And the company agreed for the next five years to allow incognito mode users to block third-party cookies.

“We are pleased to settle this lawsuit, which we always believed was meritless,” Jose Castaneda, Google spokesperson, said in a statement. “We never associate data with users when they use incognito mode. We are happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalisation.”

While the plaintiffs asked for $5-billion in damages, the settlement includes no payment from Google. Instead, individuals will be able to pursue damages by filing their own complaints against Google in US state courts, according to court papers. About 50 people have already done so, plaintiffs’ lawyers said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by attorney David Boies, called the settlement “groundbreaking” and a “historic step” in requiring big tech companies to be transparent to users about how they collect and use their data. Google’s agreement to retroactively delete user information is a significant concession as it forms the backbone of the company’s lucrative advertising business, which depends on the quality of its search engine. It also comes as Google is in the throes of multiple regulatory challenges in the US and abroad, amid rising concerns about how the tech giants use the vast amounts of data they collect from users.

“There has been a steady drumbeat of complaints, lawsuits, and regulatory action centred on companies collecting or sharing customer data in unexpected ways,” said Stephanie Liu, a senior analyst at Forrester. “The rise of privacy-oriented class action lawsuits and complaints shows consumers are increasingly privacy savvy and taking action.”

The settlement provides “substantial relief” for plaintiffs, according to representatives of the consumers in the lawsuit, which include attorneys from the law firms Boies Schiller Flexner and Morgan & Morgan.

The settlement also forestalled a trial that was scheduled for February, in a year that’s expected to be one of Google’s busiest in the courts. A jury trial in a lawsuit from the US Justice Department and a coalition of state attorneys general accusing the company of violating antitrust regulations by illegally monopolising digital advertising is slated for September, and a similar lawsuit from Texas and other states challenging its ad tech practices has been scheduled for March 2025. 

In a third case, a US judge in Washington is set to hear closing arguments in May for a landmark federal antitrust trial that alleges the company has illegally monopolised the online search market.  

Google appeared before the Media and Digital Platforms Market Inquiry in South Africa last month, to defend allegations related to profiteering from news and other unfair practices.

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