Lawsuits over Google cookies crumble

Court dismisses browser tracking case against search engine

The Googleplex Google HQ by Trey Ratcliff on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/4323977677

Google has defeated a class action lawsuit that claimed it violated federal wiretap and computer fraud laws by exploiting loopholes in Apple's Safari browser and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

A US appeals court rejected the lawsuit yesterday, after it was brought by four users who had claimed that Google bypassed cookie blockers in a bid to help advertisers target ads.

The ruling upheld a move to dismiss US government claims, and in a decision by the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, Judge Julio Fuentes said the plaintiffs did not show they suffered "damage" or "loss" from tracking of their computer use.

The ruling said that Google and others had not violated the Wiretap Act because they were a "party" to the communications rather than a third-party eavesdropper, adding that users had visited websites when cookies were installed.

But Judge Fuentes also said that Google's alleged contravention of cookie blockers, which it had publicly promised to respect, could lead to a jury finding it engaged in "egregious" conduct that violated users' privacy rights under California law.

This revived two Californian state law claims that said Google invaded users' privacy by making it possible to insert cookies into their browser to track people's computer activities.

The ruling said that the URLs of websites visited can qualify as content and would thus require a warrant to surveil them.

"If an address, phone number, or URL is instead part of the substantive information conveyed to the recipient, then by definition it is content'," the ruling stated.

"The information revealed by highly detailed URLs and their functional parallels to post-cut-through digits, we are persuaded that - at a minimum - some queried URLs qualify as content."

One consequence of the ruling is that it could remove the distinction between metadata and content, and could have substantial repurcussions after another separate court ruling said that collecting metadata was unconstitutional, ordering the NSA to cease such activities immediately.

Google agreed in 2012 and 2013 to pay a combined $39.5 million to settle civil charges by the US Federal Trade Commission, 37 states, and Washington, DC, that it tracked Safari users' internet use without their knowledge, but it did not admit doing any wrongdoing. 

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