back to article Tech giants' payouts go to everyone but affected citizens. US Supremes now urged to sort it out

A group of 16 US state attorneys general are urging America's Supreme Court to tear up an $8.5m legal settlement from Google – because none of the cash will go to the folks the class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of. Led by the attorney general of Arizona, Mark Brnovich, the legal eagles have taken issue with the fact …

  1. Oengus Silver badge

    Wrong penalty

    The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of roughly 129 million US Google users who had their privacy violated ...

    Due to the huge number of people affected, the settlement amounts to a paltry amount – roughly four cents – per person.

    129 million people impacted and a penalty of $8.5 million. That penalty will only encourage Google to continue violating people's privacy. Another example of court imposed penalties just being taken in their stride without impacting the company's bottom line.

    Until the legal system starts imposing penalties on these mega corporations that actually hurt they will keep on going the way they are and it will remain a legal system not be a justice system.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wrong penalty

      First World Corruption... This and aggressive cold-calling deserve jail time. The problem is each politician is owned by corporations.

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Wrong penalty

      The problem, as such, is that corporations rule and government does their bidding. To some extent, since most of those elected to Congress are lawyers, another special interest group is being pandered to. Yes, the penalties are way to too low for the mega-corps but the mega-corps write the rules and sway things just because they have the financial clout. For a company like Google, their settlement was pocket change found under the chairs of the exec boardroom. It's probably the same situation with other mega-corps.

      One can almost guarantee how this will go depending on the make up of the Supreme Court if they chose to hear it. It's politics (and the corporate masters) all the way the to bottom.

      Yeah... I'm not happy with the state of America at this point. I'm seeing too much power being given to the greedy wealthy because they own politicians.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wrong penalty

      Obviously they have a Shithole Legal System.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Wrong penalty

        We do. I hate it.

        The solution is obvious to me: abolish all 'punitive lawsuits'. If someone has cheated you, you can only sue for money they themselves took from you or failed to pay, nothing more. For punishment, you must seek criminal prosecution and prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Then they can get prison time or heavy fines, paid into the general government treasury so that no one in particular benefits. This is especially appropriate when millions of people have been wronged in small ways.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Sounds more like a way to transfer money to people Google likes

      Just my opinion.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wrong penalty

      The State Attorney Generals have a point - distribution of judgements where the affected users get nothing and the lawyers get everything are a bane to our legal system, and the way they tried to hide it in this case is almost criminal. This isn't about Google per se, this is the states going after the lawyers (both sides) and using Google's deep pockets to make a political and societal point.

      However, In order for the penalty to be higher you are going to have to substantiate losses. You are going to have to uniquely identify 129 Million people and get them to certify the losses directly caused by the privacy violation, and give them the option to "opt out" of the case.

      You aren't going to be able to do that. You are going to be hard pressed to find even a single person who can identify financial damages. This case was never about the "users". This case was never about getting Google to stop doing something - as they had stopped long before the case was filed. This case was always about lawyers on a money grab.

      At the core, Google's privacy violation was apparently including the search terms used as part of the URL from their search results page. In other words, it was doing exactly what all search engines were doing, from Alta Vista on down. It was a STANDARD. Nobody thought it was bad - referrer information was one of the building blocks upon which the web was built. back when the web was a much safer and simpler (and naive) place. Users weren't being identified, this wasn't about unmasking or tracking identities, this was just about intentionally leaking search terms.

      Around 2010 Google realized that this information could be used for nefarious purposes by proxies and other things (read: governmental sniffing) and started transitioning away, doing so slowly as not to bread everybody's site that depended on the information shared remaining the way it was. Their biggest mistake was saying that it was because of privacy concerns, because that statement was then used against them later on even though it was taken out of context. For once Google was actually being a GOOD corporate citizen (mark it on the calendar, it doesn't happen often) and it still came back to bite them.

      For Google this was a nuisance lawsuit. They wanted to pay it off to make it go away because it was cheaper than fighting it. Just the cost of discovery would probably have been more, and nobody else was going to pay Google's costs should they win. It was a simple economic decision. Now, even that decision is biting them.

      Not that I mind - Google has a lot of legitimate privacy violations to which they have never been held to account, and if this case is used as a proxy to address them so be it. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better for google to left the search terms in the query. By taking them out they started an arms race with tracking cookies that resulted in far worse violations of user privacy.

  2. DreamEater

    Seems to me there is two options here:

    1: they are forced to pay everyone 4cents regardless of how much it costs to do (shouldn’t of done it) and the remainder goes to a charity of the people’s choice.

    2: the whole lot is donated to places the people who brought the case recommend.

    1. Justicesays

      3. Hold a lottery of all the class members and distribute a larger minimum amount to the winners of that lottery (total/winners).

      The cost of organizing the lottery cant be taken against the settlement amount.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        How about raise the standard so that all members of the class action receive (directly) a certain minimum. If the settlement can't meet this requirement, it must either be renegotiated or put on trial.

        1. a pressbutton

          That is a bad idea.


          $evil_corp could take 1 gramme of 1 billion people's dead skin and turn it into face cream, making $beeelions.

          The damage to any one person may be negligible

          ... so they did something wrong, something legally wrong, but cannot be sued?

          That is a bad idea.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      1: they are forced to pay everyone 4cents regardless of how much it costs to do

      So massively increase the fine over what the court decided?

      Great as long as it is only being used against evil corporations that we don't like.

      But next time you get a parking ticket you are required to pay $100 divided by all the other drivers in the city that were delayed / incovenienced by you. So you have to pay each of them 1c however much it costs - oh we seem to have fined you $200,000

    3. katrinab Silver badge

      How about they credit $0.04 to every cellphone account in the US?

    4. Jaybus

      "Seems to me there is two options here:"

      There are more. Why not limit the attorneys' fees? It is fairly likely that the much of the arguing in this case revolved around the attorney fees. Google, caught red handed, probably didn't argue their innocence too strongly, but you can bet that they would argue the attorney fees. Given that, aside from the attorney fees (and donations to the attorneys own alma matars), the attorneys chose to give the remainder to Google's pet charities, I must conclude that they struck a deal with Google in order to receive a larger fee. To keep Google from arguing their fees down, they essentially allowed Google to choose the beneficiaries. Of course, Google was going to give these institutions the money anyway and it is a tax deduction. The only "real" penalty to Google was the attorney fees. Hey! It's a win-win, for everyone except the 129 million people who were harmed.

      There is no question as to why either side would not like this deal (or ruling?). The question is why would the court think so?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    here's a crazy idea...

    If it is not financially worthwhile to distribute 0.04$ to each of the 129 million people, perhaps the settlement should be set at the minimum at which it IS worthwhile to distribute?

    Obviously since this would no longer be an insignificant amount, its just crazy to even think it.

    1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

      Re: here's a crazy idea...

      There seems to be some confusion. This is a penalty, right ? It goes to the court.

      Compensation is different, and should start by determining how much badness was applied to them. So, maybe $250 each ?

    2. JassMan Silver badge

      Re: here's a crazy idea...

      Yup. In cases like this the courts should assume that every victim will have had an hour of their time wasted by whoever bought the list. Then ask the defendant how much they are paying their lawyers per hour to defend the case. Each victim would then be paid a reasonable sum for loss of privacy and the total involved would deter anyone else from selling these kind of lists.

      1. ratfox Silver badge

        Re: here's a crazy idea...

        every victim will have had an hour of their time wasted by whoever bought the list

        This particular settlement is not about Google "selling the list of queries" of users. It is about the fact that when requesting a web page, browsers would typically provide as referer the URL of the page the user was coming from. When coming from Google results, that URL used to contain the query.

        So website would be able to get, not the list of queries of the user, but the single query which had brought the user to their own web site.

        There's a reason the settlement was so low.

    3. Nimby

      Re: here's a crazy idea...

      Exactly. They're trying to solve the wrong part of the problem. If a settlement is "economically infeasible" to distribute to the actual people harmed by a wrongdoing, then the settlement was clearly too low for the harm that was caused and needs to be re-settled to an appropriate amount. Something which should be so obvious as to be self-evident, and yet somehow flies over the heads of so many of the people involved.

      1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        Re: here's a crazy idea...

        The problem arises because the amount of harm done to each person does not actually merit more than a few cents' compensation per person. Grossly over-compensating people is no more fair than under-compensating them.

        If you believe that any trivial settlement must be considered too low, then if I were to sue you for carelessly treading on my toes, a judge might decide that my momentary pain and suffering is worth 5p, but as that is such a trivial sum it must therefore be way too low, so you can pay me £10000 instead. Would that be fair?

    4. thosrtanner

      Re: here's a crazy idea...

      or perhaps google should pay the distribution costs as well

  4. Steve 129

    Make the penalty realistic !!!

    I one received a check for 17 cents from an AT&T class action suit which had 34 cents postage.

    Absolutely ridiculous !!!

    Lawyers got millions, AT&T got away with paltry "fine".

    Fines are supposed to hurt, otherwise what's the point !!! If the fine is less than the gains then it is just a cost of doing business.

  5. David 132 Silver badge

    Is it really "economically infeasible"?

    Sure, mailing out a cheque/check to every one of 129 million people would cost far in excess of 4 cents per person. But that's 19th century thinking (like so much of the legal system, natch)

    In this era of online banking how much does it really cost to e-transfer $0.04 to 129 million accounts?

    1) build the list of class plaintiffs with their bank account details

    2) initiate the transfers

    3) ??? e-banking magic happens here, possibly involving underpants gnomes

    4) any plaintiffs that don't have bank accounts or care more about the principle than the money, transfer their slice to a charity of their choosing.

    I fail to see how that could cost any more than a few tens of thousands at most.

    Am I being naïve?

    1. JassMan Silver badge

      Re: Is it really "economically infeasible"? @David 123

      Are you being naïve? Yes. Once the bank details of every victim has been added to the list in order to make the payments, the value of the list increases tremendously. Even the clerk of the Court may be tempted to try and sell off a copy of the list. Heck, all those details will need to be copied onto the original list and the work would probably be outsourced to India. Underpaid Indian workers are also not immune to the temptation to sell lists of people data.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Is it really "economically infeasible"? @David 123

        Plus, what about those who don't have bank accounts (because they don't trust banks and insist on cash)?

    2. Loud Speaker

      Re: Is it really "economically infeasible"?

      Am I being naïve?

      Yes. This is a privacy case. If there is a list of victims contact details and back accounts, and the penalty for leaking them is not up to a fraction of a chocolate bar for each offence, then obviously, those details will be sold within the hour.

  6. redpawn Silver badge

    Here's my two cents

    Google's executives should be required to hand write the four cent checks and deliver them in person.

    1. The Nazz Silver badge

      Re: Here's my two cents

      Better still, they should hand deliver the actual coinage.

      Taking their cue from this, maybe they should be made to sing it as they go along :

      By the one and only Shel Silverstein.

      ps down the rhs there is such as "Rosalies Good Eats Cafe", "The Winner" and "The Diet Song" all containing great lyrics. Sublime.

      "but Lord that's a high price to pay"

    2. ricegf

      Re: Here's my two cents

      If The Jerk could do it, so can they!

    3. jelabarre59 Silver badge

      Re: Here's my two cents

      Google's executives should be required to hand write the four cent checks and deliver them in person.

  7. Notas Badoff

    Worst case

    The same Supreme Court that came up with Citizens United (corporations are people) will decide that lawyers are people, and so give the money to that suffering class.

  8. The Nazz Silver badge

    Would it be more palatable (debateable)

    If every one of the class received the $0.04 and a slice of lawyer?

    Not the Attorneys General ( how is that abbreviated AsG?) they come across as the good guys and actually acting in comsumers' interest.

    1. strum Silver badge

      Re: Would it be more palatable (debateable)

      >a slice of lawyer

      Bad taste. Even with ketchup.

      1. Alistair Silver badge

        Re: Would it be more palatable (debateable)

        "Bad taste. Even with ketchup."

        I'll agree. I doubt even Morrisons would put it in a pie.

    2. Jeffrey Nonken Silver badge

      Re: Would it be more palatable (debateable)

      "Not the Attorneys General ( how is that abbreviated AsG?)"

      AGs. An acronym is basically a word built of letters from other words; treat it like a word, its own entity, when doing other operations on it.

      We do it all the time. RAdio Detection And Ranging. Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. MOdulator-DEModulator.

      Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.

      These are all... erm... OK, MOSTLY acronyms that have made it into common use, and we treat them like words. A lot of people don't even know they're acronyms. Though I admit they're not very good examples for this type of pluralizing; the first two are either mass nouns or adjectives, the third would be pluralized on the last word anyway, and as for the fourth... well, there is only the one. But I think you get the point.

      1. jelabarre59 Silver badge

        Re: Would it be more palatable (debateable)

        "Not the Attorneys General ( how is that abbreviated AsG?)"

        Attorneys States General (I think). As in the Attorneys General from all the states.

  9. Lars Silver badge

    Old news

    Swift wrote in his novel "Gulliver's Travels" (pub. 1726), about an old woman who had five cows, crooks stole three and her layer the remaining two. A really old and in a way with a happy ending as these days you might end up in dept too.

    Note to self, cheer up.

    (The book became popular as soon as it was published. John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that "It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Old news

      Google: 18th camel

      1. terrythetech

        Re: Old news

        I think not - DDG it instead

  10. ecofeco Silver badge


    Pay the victims? That's just crazy un-American commie talk!

  11. Public Citizen

    Ninth Circus

    It should be noted that the US Ninth Circuit Court is the most overturned District Court in the entire jurisdiction of the US Federal Courts.

    It is so bad that there has been serious discussion about breaking up this court and forming two new Federal Circuit Courts.

    The court is notorious for the convoluted levels that the liberal judges it has will go to to legislate from the bench a pre-determined outcome.

    1. dew3

      Re: Ninth Circus

      "It should be noted that the US Ninth Circuit Court is the most overturned District Court in the entire jurisdiction of the US Federal Courts."

      It should also be noted that has not been true for years. The 6th circuit has been the most overturned for a while; the last time I looked the 9th was 3rd or 4th place.

      In addition, it should probably be noted that by definition, in the US a federal "circuit court" is not a "district court". A federal circuit court is the appeals court for the federal district courts in a region.

      "It is so bad that there has been serious discussion about breaking up this court and forming two new Federal Circuit Courts."

      There has been serious discussion about breaking up the 9th for decades. 1% of the discussion is from right wingers who complain about the judges and politics. 99% of the discussion is because the 9th circuit is not only the biggest circuit, it is so big it has 50% more cases than the next biggest circuit (~12,000 per year, vs. ~8,000 in the 2nd biggest 5th circuit).

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One area the US is behind the UK, then

    here, netizens have been conditioned to expect fuck all for a privacy breach.

    Or, to put it another way, feel free to counter with a link to a story where an ICO judgement awarded anything to the victims. I'll wait here for an hour.




















    No. Didn't think so.

  13. msknight Silver badge

    Tax is a national engine isn't it?

    Why not have an engine which automatically knocks 4 cents off everyone's tax bill?

  14. thegroucho

    What do you call ...

    What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?

    A good start.

  15. sisk Silver badge

    Personally I think the real problem here is that the settlement is way too small. Google should have been on the hook for a hundred million minimum, preferably 200 or 300 million. In a case like this the settlement needs to be big enough to both make a sizable dent in the offending company's coffer - so that they're inclined to not do it again - and provide some sort of compensation to the victims. $8.5 million for a company as big as Google in a case with 129 million plaintiffs is ludicrously small. I guarantee they made more than that from the wrong-doings that led to this case, so this neither provides incentive for Google to not do it again (indeed, they most likely profited from it even after losing the lawsuit) nor provides any form of compensation to the victims.

  16. Kev99 Bronze badge

    A better solution in the future would be for the plaintiffs to DEMAND the attorney fees and costs NOT be included in any settlement, but rather be in addition to any settlement. So if the settlement is for a million dollars and the attorney fees and costs are to 30% of the settlement, the defendants would have to pay out $1.3 Million.

    1. dew3

      RE: A better solution

      Errr, no.

      Some kinds of litigation automatically includes "reasonable attorneys' fees" which is a per-hour-fee times hours worked. With other kids of litigation, the plaintiff can often ask for those fees as part of the suit. Some plaintiffs also just pay out-of-pocket (no %, just fee for hours worked).

      But most/all of the "attorneys get X% of the proceeds" (usually called a contingency fee) is a number negotiated between the plaintiff and their attorney(s), where the plaintiff pays nothing if they lose, and end up paying much more than a normal per-hour attorney fee if they win.

      The person/company being sued (if they lose) should not get stuck with a bigger bill just because plaintiffs decided to use a contingency-fee arrangement, or worse, if they did a bad job negotiating an appropriate % with their lawyer(s).

      Maybe there could be a max %contingency for class actions (probably a good idea given how greedy many/most class action lawyers seem to be), but I'd still be careful of the iron 'law of unintended consequences'. And anyway, all that is kind of irrelevant in this case, as even without those lawyer fees each victim would still get less than 1$US. Which brings us to the real problem - in the US too many class action lawsuits are all about enriching class action lawyers and have little or nothing to do with compensating victims.

  17. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    The ONLY winners in any legal action

    Are the effing scumbag shyster lawyers.

    People should know that by now.

  18. John70

    Henry VI, Part 2 Act IV Scene 2

    "The first thing we do, lets kill all the lawyers."

    William Shakespeare

  19. lsatenstein

    If you are going to redirect the money (punitive damages), please redirect the money to the IRS to partially cover the overly generous spending spree that the Republicans have started. Do not give the money to one federal branch, as the next year politicians will reduce spending to that branch in the amount of the redirected money.

  20. Hans 1 Silver badge

    What does embezzlement mean in the US ?

    [...] the remaining $5.3m will be split between seven organizations, agreed to by the lawyers and Google.

    Three of the seven are law schools that the attorneys' attended - Harvard University, Stanford University and the Chicago-Kent College of Law – and the remaining four are among Google's favorite institutions who do work that benefit the tech giant and which the company already supplies millions to - AARP, Carnegie Mellon University, the MacArthur Foundation, and the World Privacy Forum.

    Is that not the very definition of embezzlement ?

    If I were US supreme court, I would go after the lawyers from both sides ... how come they can negotiate where the funds go ? This looking more and more like the richer are getting greedier by the year ...

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Tax deductible?

    Are corporate fines tax deductible? Not that Google pay tax anyway...

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