Google has agreed to settle a $5 billion lawsuit brought by claimants who accused the web giant of privacy invasion by tracking their online activities despite being in “incognito mode” when using the company’s Chrome browser.
After lawyers announced on Thursday that they’d reached a preliminary agreement, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers put a scheduled trial for the case in California on hold, Reuters reported.
The class action lawsuit was filed in 2020 and involved “millions” of Google users since June 2016. It sought at least $5,000 in damages per user for violations of California privacy laws.
The terms of the agreement weren’t revealed but should become available early next year when lawyers are expected to present a formal settlement for court approval.
The privacy-focused lawsuit accused Alphabet-owned Google of tracking users’ browsing activity on Chrome even when it was set to “incognito mode,” a privacy setting that removes activity data from the device being used but allows websites that have been visited to track usage.
It claimed that this enabled Google to become an “unaccountable trove of information” by allowing it to gather personal data linked to things like social circles and shopping habits, as well as “potentially embarrassing things.”
In its defense, Google said it had been transparent about data collection in incognito mode, saying that it enabled website operators to “better evaluate the performance of their content, products, marketing, and more,” the BBC reported.
Over the summer, the judge rejected a bid by Google to dismiss the lawsuit, suggesting it wasn’t clear as to the extent to which the company had warned users that data collection still took place in privacy mode.
Reaching an agreement enables Google to avoid what could have been a difficult and revealing trial, but the episode once again throws a spotlight on how big tech handles user data and how clearly it communicates the specifics of those practices.
It’s also a reminder that the vast majority of web users are not browsing anonymously, as explained in this informative Digital Trends article.