Google's Not So Great Safari Adventure Attracts Lawsuits

By Peter Bernstein February 22, 2012

It seems to be a Google kind of day. First came the news via a Microsoft blog that the folks in Redmond had filed a complaint in Europe to get regulators to say with them, “Google: Please don’t kill video on the Web.”  Now, first reported on Bloomberg but mushrooming by the minute, comes news that the Google magnificent adventure to circumvent Apple privacy rules (uncovered by none other than The Wall Street Journal) in order to track Safari browser users surfing habits has drawn it first few lawsuits. 

The first of will likely be many

Here is what we know so far. Illinois resident Matthew Soble filed suit in U.S. District Court in Delaware today saying Google through its “willful and knowing actions violated” federal wiretapping laws and other computer-related statutes.  Soble’s attorney David Straite is also saying that James Richar is suing Google in Kansas for the same reasons, and that he is aware of another suit in New Jersey in what is sure to result in a case of rolling thunder that ultimately results in a class-action.  

In addition, Brian Martorana has filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Missouri that alleges Google violated federal wiretap laws and intruded on his solitude which is actionable in Missouri. And it has been widely reported that researchers at Carnegie Mellon have discovered that many Web companies get around users’ privacy settings by providing popular Microsoft browser Internet Explorer (IE) with providing it with incorrect data —something Microsoft was not shy in blogging about this week. 

Mashable has a just updated item saying Soble’s complaint has two noteworthy things:

  • It claims that Google’s current action is contrary to its settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year regarding deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy policies when it introduced the Buzz social networking service in 2010.
  • He is seeking the court to “permanently restrain” Google from installing cookies on phones or other devices when such tracking is in violation of the law. 

The post also notes that the Kansas suit is also asking for a permanent injunction to stop Google from “intercepting” electronic information from users who are not logged onto 

How far all of this goes is pure conjecture. In a similar case against Amazon, accused of circumventing IE users by “spoofing” the browser, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle dismissed a recent case because those suing could not prove how they were harmed. While the users have refilled with substantiation of harms and the matter is now pending, it must be noted that recently LinkedIn, Facebook and Zynga have all had privacy-related lawsuits tossed for similar reasons.

All of this privacy -- actually possible invasion of it -- has drawn the attention in the U.S. of Senator Jay Rockefeller (D – WV). As I have pointed out in previous articles on related issues, it is clear that companies are well ahead of current law, particularly in the U.S. Unfortunately, until the laws clarify what is or is not permissible use, it can be expected that Web companies will push the limits because of the value of the information gathered for marketing purposes. One thing is clear. If commercial enterprises value my surfing habits so highly, then it seems only logical that if it is that valuable than users should have some say/control over when, where, who, what and why it gets used. At a minimum proper disclosure with a clear indication of how to opt-out and the penalties a company can face for disobeying user instructions should be in something more than the fine print.  

It will be interesting to see what the legal system and the lawmakers decide. Privacy is only going to become a bigger issue over time, and a lack of clarity only invites more litigation.

Edited by Rich Steeves
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