Google Settles Buzz User Privacy Litigation

[Post by Venkat]

In re Google Buzz User Privacy Litigation, Case No. 5:10-CV-00672-JW (N.D. Cal.) (Sept. 03, 2010).

Google recently settled the lawsuits relating to its privacy practices for Buzz. (h/t Wendy Davis) The terms of the settlement, which are subject to the court’s approval:

(1) Google sets aside $8.5 million;

(2) the lawyers can claim up to 30% of this amount ($2.5 million), without objection from Google;

(3) class representatives get up to $2,500 each;

(4) Google makes (or has already made) changes “to the Google Buzz user interface that clarify Google Buzz’s operation and users’ options regarding Google Buzz;” and

(5) Google agrees to disseminate “wider public education about the privacy aspects of Google Buzz.”

The bulk of the $8.5 million fund goes to “organizations focused on Internet privacy policy or privacy education,” which will be selected by mutual agreement of the parties. The settlement agreement does not result in payment of damages to the class members (other than the representative class members). This is similar to the structure of the Facebook Beacon settlement, except Facebook created a foundation which it funded and which some allege will be beholden to Facebook. (Here’s a blog post on the Facebook settlement, which is currently only appeal to the Ninth Circuit.)

There’s nothing wrong with a class action defendant paying out money to a public interest organization instead of paying damages to class members, but in privacy cases, I wonder if it reinforces the idea often advanced by defendants in these cases that there’s no harm. With cases like this one and Facebook’s Beacon settling with no damages paid to class members, you have to wonder. Also, with plaintiffs’ lawyers becoming more organized, and companies continuing to stumble when it comes to rolling out new services which affect the privacy of consumers, the whole privacy lawsuit-settlement cycle has a toll-like feel to it.

Another interesting aspect of the settlement is that although Google agreed to make changes as part of the settlement, the settlement agreement does not specify any changes. Google admitted some errors in its roll out of Buzz, and I’m curious to see what changes Google made in response to the lawsuit as opposed to in response to public outcry. The settlement agreement notes that Google produced documents relating to operation of Google Buzz, changes, and consumer feedback regarding Buzz. I assume these documents will be made public and that may answer this question. (Also, Google agrees as part of its educational efforts to incorporate comments and suggestions from class counsel. I assume interested parties can submit their comments as well and Google will consider them. It may be unwieldy, but a public process around this would be nice.)

None of this necessarily undermines the claims brought by the class or the settlement, but the terms of the settlement and their similarity to the Beacon settlement are worth noting.

Separately, EPIC filed a complaint with the FTC around Google’s Buzz practices. Here’s the EPIC page for Google Buzz: “In re Google Buzz.”