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Google to delete billions of web browsing data records to resolve lawsuit

Google committed to destroying or de-identifying vast amounts of web browsing data gathered from users in Incognito mode as part of a landmark class-action lawsuit settlement filed Monday.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Google will de-identify or delete the billions of data records it has collected from users who thought they were browsing privately. The tech giant also agreed to change its disclosures by explicitly informing users of the data collection via its privacy policy and, more significantly, its Incognito splash screen. 

The tech giant also must allow Incognito users to block third-party cookies for the next five years, the court filing said.

The latter change is important because Google has used the cookies to track users in Incognito mode across the web, the filing said.

If a Northern California federal judge signs off on the proposed settlement, it could apply to 136 million Google users. The court filing said the settlement’s terms are valued at $5 billion based on how much the data Google will be forced to destroy is worth and the value of the data it will no longer be able to gather.

The lawsuit, brought in 2020, is considered a major win for privacy advocates and Google users who felt deceived by Incognito’s seeming promise of privacy protections. 

Class members who still want to can seek damages in state court, the filing said.

“This settlement is an historic step in requiring dominant technology companies to be

honest in their representations to users about how the companies collect and employ user data,

and to delete and remediate data collected,” the plaintiffs said in their unopposed filing for settlement approval. 

A Google spokesperson said the company has always believed the lawsuit is “meritless.”

“The plaintiffs originally wanted $5 billion and are receiving zero,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We never associate data with users when they use Incognito mode.”

The tech giant is “happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalization,” the spokesperson added.

The filing noted that Google has started changing its disclosures without waiting for final court approval.

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.