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Google Settlement Will Be Small Victory for Privacy Rights

Tech giant must disclose its data collection policies up front


spinner image Google logo projected behind the outline of a smartphone
Yasin Baturhan Ergin/Anadolu via Getty Images

While Google’s agreement to erase billions of private browsing records as part of a class-action lawsuit will be a victory for privacy advocates, it appears little will change for most users.

Even so, it’s a positive development for older adults for whom privacy is top of mind. Of course, the developer of the most popular browser in the U.S., Chrome, still knows plenty about its customers.

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Older adults are more skeptical about online privacy than younger users, according to an October report from the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Fewer than 2 in 5 of adults 65 and older say they always or almost always agree to online privacy policies without reading them, as do about half of adults age 50 to 64.

Almost three-quarters of 18- to 29-year-olds say yes without checking out the fine print. But younger adults also know more about ratcheting up the privacy settings on their social media accounts or using a browser that doesn’t track them, the Pew report shows.

Google's ‘Incognito’ gave off aura of invisibility

The Google lawsuit revolves around an optional “incognito” feature in its Chrome browser, which the plaintiffs alleged gave the false impression that anyone employing that mode would not be tracked while online.

The issue was spelled out in documents filed April 1 in a San Francisco federal court: “This settlement is an historic step in requiring dominant technology companies to be honest in their representation to users about how the companies collect and employ user data.”

In a statement to the press, Google spokesman Jose Castaneda called the case “meritless” adding, “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 personalization.”

You now see more honest disclosure language up front

Besides the mandated demolition of private browsing records, which applies to data older than nine months, Google also has had to “rewrite its disclosures to tell users that it collects private browsing data.” The changes went into effect at the end of March.

What you now see on the screen that appears when you enable the incognito option is the following: the mode “won’t change how data is collected by websites you visit and the services they use, including Google.”

Google also is required to alter its privacy policy to disclose “that activity on third-party sites and apps that use [Google] services is collected regardless of which browsing or browser mode you use.”

Old cookie policy crumbles under new limits

What’s more, the settlement imposes restrictions on the way Google collects data moving forward.

By default, the tech giant must let users block third-party cookies for five years. In the past, Google deposited such cookies — a term for packets of data — on devices to track users when they patrolled non-Google websites, even in incognito mode.

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The intended result is that Google will not only collect less data from your “private” browsing sessions, but also make less money from that data.

No money will be given to Google users — yet

“The Google Chrome settlement is part of a broader trend of consumers filing complaints about their data being used in ways they don't expect,” emailed senior analyst Stephanie Liu of Forrester Research, who focuses on the intersection of marketing and privacy. 

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

Last year, Google settled a set of class-action lawsuits on privacy that were consolidated into one case for $23 million. The company also agreed to pay $630 million to consumers after state attorneys general alleged it had squelched competition in the payment system of its Android app store.

Though lawyers value the most recent agreement between $4.75 billion and $7.8 billion, what you won’t see are monetary awards, at least immediately. But coming out of the settlement, individuals retain the right to file their own claims through the courts.

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