Google CEO Pichai To Be Questioned In $5bn Web Tracking Lawsuit

The boss of Alphabet’s Google division is to be questioned, as part of a $5 billion class action lawsuit over tracking web surfing habits.

It was back in June 2020 when Google was accused of a major privacy violation of millions of users, by pervasively tracking their internet use through Chrome browsers set in “private” or “incognito” mode.

In February of the same year, Google was also sued by the US state of New Mexico, which accused the search engine giant of using its educational products to illegally gather data on children and families. Google said the US state’s claims were “factually wrong”.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai

Tracking lawsuit

It should be remembered that in 2019 Google paid $170 million (£130m) to the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations it illegally collected children’s personal data on YouTube.

However the June 2020 lawsuit is seeking at least $5 billion, and alleges that Google surreptitiously collected information about what people view online and where they browse, despite them using what Google calls Incognito mode.

The lawsuit was filed in the federal court in San Jose, California, and the complain alleged that Google gathers data through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager and other applications and website plug-ins, including smartphone apps, regardless of whether users click on Google-supported ads.

The complaint said this helps Google learn about users’ friends, hobbies, favourite foods, shopping habits, and even the “most intimate and potentially embarrassing things” they search for online.

Google “cannot continue to engage in the covert and unauthorised data collection from virtually every American with a computer or phone,” the complaint alleged at the time.

But Google said at the time it would defend itself vigorously against the claim.

Sundar Pichai ruling

And now over a year later, Reuters has reported that Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai can be questioned in the lawsuit.

Plaintiffs can question Sundar Pichai for up to two hours, a California federal judge has ruled.

The plaintiffs reportedly argue that Pichai has “unique, personal knowledge” of issues relating to the Chrome browser and privacy concerns, the Monday court filing showed.

However Google is not happy, and spokesman José Castañeda told Reuters that the new requests were “unwarranted and overreaching.”

“While we strongly dispute the claims in this case, we have cooperated with plaintiffs’ countless requests … We will continue to vigorously defend ourselves,” Castañeda was quoted as saying.

Pichai in 2019 was reportedly warned that describing the company’s Incognito browsing mode as “private” was problematic, yet the description was not changed because Pichai allegedly did not want the feature “under the spotlight,” according to a court filing in September.

US Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen in San Jose, California on Monday said “a few documents establish that specific relevant information was communicated to, and possibly from, Pichai,” and therefore supported a request from the plaintiffs’ lawyers to question him.

Google insists that it makes clear that Incognito only stops data from being saved to a user’s device and is thus fighting the lawsuit.

Private browsing?

Security researchers have long voiced concerns about the so called private browsing functions of web browsers.

They warned that browser firms might augment user profiles by tracking people’s identities across different browsing modes, combining data from private and ordinary internet surfing.

Privacy remains an ongoing concern, perhaps even more so during the Coronavirus pandemic.

In April 2020 the Federal Appeals Court approved a proposed class action by Facebook users over alleged tracking of their internet activity, even after logging out

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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