Google, the world’s most popular search engine and web browser, is facing accusations that it violated the privacy of its users. A class action lawsuit alleges Google tracked the online activity of Chrome users even when they used the browser in its privacy-oriented Incognito mode. The case is still ongoing as a California judge recently denied Google’s request for summary judgment.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed in June 2020, Google is alleged to have collected user data from Incognito mode through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager, and other applications and website plug-ins regardless of whether or not the user clicked on Google-supported ads. The plaintiffs allege Google misled its customers by not explicitly informing them that their activity in Incognito mode would be tracked.
The $5 billion lawsuit could potentially cover millions of Google users who have browsed the internet using Incognito mode since June 1, 2016. U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who presided on Monday, said in her 36-page ruling that the plaintiffs showed there was a market for their data because of a Google pilot program that paid users $3 a day for their browsing histories.
Commenting on the lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ lawyer David Boies said it was “an important step in protecting the privacy interests of millions of Americans.” Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda defended the company by saying that “Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device.” But this argument was rejected by Judge Gonzalez Rogers who stated that “Google’s motion hinges on the idea that plaintiffs consented to Google collecting their data while they were browsing in private mode. Because Google never explicitly told users that it does so, the Court cannot find as a matter of law that users explicitly consented to the at-issue data collection.”
This lawsuit against Google is not the only challenge the company has faced related to privacy. In 2020, a federal judge in the U.S. rejected Google’s bid to dismiss another lawsuit claiming it violated the privacy of millions of people by secretly tracking their internet use.
The denial of Google’s request for summary judgement implies the class action lawsuit will now proceed to a potential settlement or trial. Regardless of the eventual outcome, the case acts as a reminder to all who use the internet for online activities that even seemingly private browsing can have its limits.