Search Query Disclosures Will Cost Google $8.5M

     SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a consolidated class action over its alleged disclosure to third parties of users’ search queries.
     Paloma Gaos filed the first class action against Google in October 2010, claiming that Google routinely passed on private information through “referrer headers,” which provided the website the user was visiting with the URL of the referring page. The URL included the search terms typed in by the user.
     Gaos claimed that personal information passed on through these referrer headers could potentially have included users’ names, their confidential medical information, their race, or information about their religious beliefs and sexual orientation. Such transmissions to third parties allegedly implicated millions of search queries over the course of just one day.
     In some cases, the transmission of search queries also relayed users’ IP addresses, leaving users vulnerable because IP addresses identify the computers being used, the California-filed lawsuit had claimed.
     Gabriel Privey filed a similar action with the Northern District of Illinois in February 2012.
     The parties then entered mediation, and the parties executed a settlement about a year later. In April 2013, the Northern District of California approved a joint stipulation, which included a consolidated class action complaint.
     On Friday, the plaintiffs moved for preliminary approval of the settlement, which requires Google to pay $8.5 million into a settlement fund that will cover administration expenses, incentive awards to the class representatives, attorneys’ fees for class counsel and cy pres distributions to seven nonprofits that have agreed to use the funds for public awareness and research related to Internet privacy.
     If approved by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila, the proposed settlement also calls for Google to post disclosures on its website concerning user search queries, including information about whether users’ search queries are transmitted to third parties. The disclosures would appear on Google’s FAQs page, Key Terms page, and Privacy FAQ for Google Web History page.
     Other cases alleging privacy violations have reached similar settlements, according to the filing signed by class counsel Michael Aschenbrener.
     Claims over the alleged disclosure of email contact lists with Google Buzz netted an $8.5 million settlement, for example, and privacy claims against Facebook’s Beacon program ended with a $9.5 million settlement, the attorney noted.
     Likewise, Netflix paid $9 million to settle claims that it stored customers’ personal information.
     The cy pres recipients are World Privacy Forum, Carnegie-Mellon, Chicago-Kent College of Law Center for Information, Society, and Policy, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Stanford Center for Internet and Society, MacArthur Foundation and AARP Inc.
     In October 2011, Google began encrypting search queries and stopped passing them along to third parties if the searcher was logged into a Google account. This does not apply, however, when users click on advertising links.

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