SAN JOSE (CN) - A federal class action claims that Google's Toolbar software deceives users into giving the company information about the websites they visit and the information they search for online, potentially "revealing a user's inquiries about medical, political, religious, cultural, or financial matters."
The class claims that Google tells its Toolbar users they can keep their searches private by disabling certain features of the software. But "Google's statements have been incorrect. In reality, the functions that supposedly turned off Toolbar or its transmission features only turned off the display of Toolbar in the user's browser window. Toolbar itself continued to function in the background, transmitting to Google the address of every web page viewed by the user, along with information that identified the individual user," according to the complaint.
"For many months, Google knew about serious discrepancies between what it said about Toolbar and how Toolbar actually functioned. However, Google failed to take any corrective action until late January of this year, after publicity revealed the details of Toolbar's improper data collection. Google still has not taken steps to purge the improperly collected and highly personal data that Toolbar improperly collected."
The lead plaintiff is Jason Weber, of Kings County, New York. He claims that "Google has provided users inadequate and misleading disclosures regarding Toolbar and the control mechanisms that purport to implement users' Toolbar preferences. Unbeknownst to users, these controls do not work as described. ...
"Google specifically promises users that they can control the operation of certain Toolbar features with special privacy consequences. In particular, Google promises that these features 'only operate and transmit data if you choose to enable them,'" according to the complaint.
But Weber says Toolbar regularly sends Google information about a particular user, including cookies and the user's IP addresses. And if a user turns on the software's "advanced features," Toolbar sends much more revealing information to the company.
"If a user activates certain 'advanced features' of Toolbar, Toolbar transmits to Google the full Uniform Resource Locator (URL) of every Web page requested by the user," according to the complaint. "'Path information' in the URL identifies the specific Web page or Internet resource viewed or downloaded by the user. By analogy to a library book, URL information is equivalent to identifying which book and which page in that book was viewed by a reader. URLs may reveal a user's inquiries about medical, political, religious, cultural, or financial matters."
Google makes it "excessively easy" to turn on the advanced features, Weber says.
"In its new Toolbar installation process, Google makes it excessively easy for users to enable Toolbar's advanced features," according to the complaint. "For one, Google touts advanced features at the conclusion of each and every Toolbar installation. Because Toolbar is billed as a quick installation ... users are not expecting to make difficult, significant, long-lasting privacy-sensitive decisions during such installation."
Weber adds that "the very design of Google's enhanced-features prompt increases the likelihood that users will make an uninformed decision. Google presents a bold-faced heading and three sentences of supposed benefits before finally discussing the crucial privacy detriments of advanced features."
Even if a user disables the advanced features, that may not be enough to keep information private, according to the complaint.
Weber says that a Jan. 25 article in PC World exposed the problems with the software, but the company failed to adequately address them.
Weber seeks disgorgement, statutory and punitive damages for violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. He also wants an injunction and an accounting of the data, money and assets the company has obtained, and he wants Google to "delete all data wrongfully collected," and "provide clear, conspicuous, accessible, and accurate notice of its practices, instructions, and privacy choices for configuring and using Toolbar."
The class is represented by Avi Kreitenberg with KamberLaw of Los Angeles.
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