Google's settlement of Street View privacy case OK'd on appeal

Google Street View cameras are seen on a vehicle proceeding up Yonge Street in midtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada June 17, 2021. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
  • Street View vehicles improperly collected Wi-Fi data
  • Google settled claims with class of millions of people
  • Agreed to pay internet privacy interest groups, but not class members

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Monday upheld Google's settlement of a long-running class action over allegations that it illegally collected Wi-Fi data from an estimated 60 million people with its Street View program.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument that Google's agreement to pay $13 million to internet privacy advocacy groups was unfair because it didn't pay the class members themselves.

Several groups of plaintiffs filed class actions against Google in 2010 after the company said that its Street View vehicles, which capture panoramic images of city streets, had been inadvertently collecting sensitive data including emails, passwords and documents from Wi-Fi networks.

The 9th Circuit rejected Google's attempt to escape the claims in 2013.

In 2018, Google settled in San Francisco federal court with a class of nearly 60 million people, agreeing to give $13 million to nine internet privacy advocacy groups in cy pres payments, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Digital Democracy.

Two purported class members and several state attorneys general objected to the settlement last year, arguing the funds should be distributed to class members instead. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer approved the settlement last year, and objector David Lowery appealed.

Identifying and paying all of the class members directly wasn't feasible, U.S. Circuit Judge Bridget Bade wrote for a three-judge panel in Monday's decision.

She wrote that the payments to advocacy groups combined with Google's promises to take actions on data protection were a fair alternative.

Bade also authored a separate concurring opinion which said that the district court ruled correctly. But she wrote that there is a "compelling argument that class members receive no benefit at all from a settlement that extinguishes their claims without awarding them any damages" and directs money to groups "they have likely never heard of or may even oppose."

Lowery's attorney Adam Schulman of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute's Center for Class Action Fairness said they were "contemplating their options for further review, especially in light of Judge Bade's concurrence."

Daniel Small of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, who represented the class, called the court's majority opinion "thorough and cogent."

Google and its attorney Brian Willen of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is In re Google Inc Street View Electronic Communications Litigation, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-15616.

For the class: Daniel Small of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll; Elizabeth Cabraser of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein; and Jeffrey Kodroff of Spector Roseman & Kodroff.

For Lowery: Adam Schulman of the Center for Class Action Fairness

For Google: Brian Willen of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Read more:

Google loses appeal in Street View privacy case

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Blake Brittain reports on intellectual property law, including patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Reach him at blake.brittain@thomsonreuters.com