Google corporate headquarters showing privacy lawsuit settlement for incognito mode

Google’s $5 Billion “Incognito Mode” Privacy Lawsuit Reaches Preliminary Settlement

A privacy lawsuit that touches millions of Chrome browser users and that was seeking $5 billion may have been settled, pending final approval by the court. The suit accused Google owner Alphabet of continuing to track and profile Chrome users even after they had set their browsers to “Incognito” or “private browsing” mode, which led them to believe that they were not having the contents of their searches or website explorations logged.

The class action suit is presently being heard by a U.S. District Court judge in Oakland, and incorporates elements of California’s state privacy laws. The settlement would not get Google out of all of its potential legal trouble regarding Incognito Mode, and may pave the way for future privacy lawsuits along these lines as it accuses the company of violating federal wiretapping law.

Privacy lawsuit hinges on undisclosed elements of “private browsing” mode, language used to notify consumers

The privacy lawsuit was first filed in 2020, and had been scheduled to go before the District Court on February 5. It is now on pause as the lawyers prepare a binding term sheet. Full details of the settlement have not been disclosed yet, but the plaintiffs had been seeking a minimum of $5 billion.

The suit hinges on Google’s handling of the “Incognito” mode offered in Chrome browsers. Users have accused Google of over-promising the level of privacy offered by this mode, which ultimately only guarantees that browsing information will not be saved on the device or to a Google account that the user is not signed in to. The mode has primarily been aimed at keeping browsing private on shared computers that multiple people have access to, for example a family all using the same computer, rather than securing it against local network or website snooping.

The privacy lawsuit members believe that the language Google previously used to describe the function and limits of this mode did not convey that web activity could still be logged by a number of sources, not the least of which was Google themselves. Users do not need to be logged in to be tracked by Google’s web-spanning advertising network, which uses cookies delivered by numerous partner sites to collect browsing data on all visitors.

Google’s motion to dismiss the privacy lawsuit was rejected in August, with Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers finding that the company did not adequately inform consumers of the range of information it was continuing to collect. The plaintiffs also successfully demonstrated a market value for this data by pointing to a prior Google program that had paid users $3 per day to track their browsing history.

Google has since updated the language it uses to describe Incognito mode , but the company has argued that a warning about the possibility of websites recording user data has always been provided whenever a new Chrome browser tab is opened.

Settlement amount over “unaccountable trove of information” remains unknown

Both sides of the privacy lawsuit have yet to publicly comment on the proposed settlement, but the plaintiffs had been seeking minimum damages of $5,000 per Chrome user with the accusations of improper tracking dating back to at least 2016.

Privacy lawsuits have been part of a package of actions that have pushed Google to slowly revamp its personalized advertising strategy, moving to a more anonymized cohort-based model that begins with the elimination of cookies from Chrome in 2024. Google’s present timeline has 1% of users having cookies disabled as of January 4, with 100% elimination targeted for Q3 of the year. EU and UK regulation has been another key driver in this area.

Google’s list of privacy lawsuits has become long, particularly since it moved away from the “Don’t Be Evil” motto for its corporate code of conduct. A 2018 suit brought very similar charges against Android’s privacy settings, noting that personalized ad tracking continues even when a phone’s “Location History” is set to “off.” That led to a wave of state attorneys general initiating suits against Google along similar legal lines, many of which were settled for substantial sums of money. The company has also been successfully sued for federal wiretap violations before, over its use of the unlocked wireless networks of private homes by its data-gathering “Street View” vehicles.

The mobile location history settlements have ranged from hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars. Google also settled a lawsuit related to its search engine for $23 million almost exactly one year ago; that case involved the undisclosed sharing of search queries with third-party advertisers and had been winding through the courts for 12 years, ultimately delivering only an estimated $7.70 to each claimant.