By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – A U.S. judge rejected Google’s bid to dismiss a lawsuit claiming it invaded the privacy of millions of people by secretly tracking their internet use.
U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers on Monday said she could not find that users consented to letting Google collect information about what they viewed online because the Alphabet unit never explicitly told them it would.
David Boies, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the proposed $5 billion class action, called the decision “an important step in protecting the privacy interests of millions of Americans.”
The plaintiffs alleged that Google’s analytics, cookies and apps let the Mountain View, California-based company track their activity even when they set Google’s Chrome browser to “Incognito” mode and other browsers to “private” browsing mode.
They said this let Google learn enough about their friends, hobbies, favorite foods, shopping habits, and “potentially embarrassing things” they seek out online, becoming “an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it.”
In a 36-page decision, Rogers said the plaintiffs showed there was a market for their data, citing a Google pilot program that paid users $3 a day for their browsing histories.
“Taken as a whole, a triable issue exists as to whether these writings created an enforceable promise that Google would not collect users’ data while they browsed privately,” Rogers wrote.
Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said the company strongly disputed the plaintiffs’ claims and would defend itself vigorously against them.
“Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device,” he said. “As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity during your session.”
The lawsuit covers Google users since June 1, 2016. It seeks at least $5,000 of damages per user for violations of federal wiretapping and California privacy laws.
The case is Brown et al v Google LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 20-03664.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)