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Google to Pay $8.5 Million to Settle Search Query Privacy Case

privacy-debateGoogle agreed to pay $8.5 million to a handful of nonprofits in a federal U.S. class-action settlement that claimed the search engine violated user privacy, according to MediaPost.

If accepted by the court, the settlement will resolve allegations Google violated its privacy policy by sending search queries to third parties.

The lawsuit was brought about in 2010 by a plaintiff who claimed Google was disclosing sensitive and personal information to third parties when she searched for her own name and her family members’ names in the search engine, and then clicked on links within the search results.

She argued that by clicking on those links, Google disclosed personal information when it transferred data about her queries (her name and family members’ names) within the referrer headers.

The referrer header is the URL of the web page the user was on before visiting another site. It can contain information about where the user came from and what queries they used to find a website.

Google defended itself by saying the plaintiff couldn’t show she was injured by the alleged data leakage. But the plaintiff’s lawyer stated the purpose of the lawsuit was to prove that users don’t know what personal information is being transmitted to whom and under what circumstances when using Google’s search engine.

As part of the settlement, Google agreed to revise the FAQ section of its privacy policy, but did not promise to change any of its current practices, said.

Google released encrypted search in beta back in May 2010, prior to this class-action lawsuit, and launched it across all searches for signed-in users in 2011.

What that meant for search data was this: websites visited from Google’s organic search results still knew the user came from Google, but they didn’t receive information about each individual query. Hence the surge of “not provided” data many site owners now see in Google Analytics.

MediaPost reported the recipients of the $8.5 million settlement would include the World Privacy Forum; Chicago-Kent’s Center for Information, Society, and Policy; Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; and Stanford Law’s Center for Internet and Society.

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