When your rights are violated there’s one place to go: the courtroom. Let’s review some of the most famous privacy cases in a new series “Privacy Litigation”. First one is US vs. Google (Buzz Safari) case.

While justice as a concept is a beautiful thing, practically having a legal dispute solved involves weeks, months and even years of time and money spent. And this accounts for the general instances when the laws are more or less clear and the previous litigation can be used to solve the case. 

But going to court against Big Tech is different. The companies there operate in a legal spectrum that has yet to be defined and this brings many challenges. Judges that deal with cases against tech giants basically have to be legal pioneers and introduce new approaches to treating the violations that arise in a highly innovative space. 

Also, don’t forget the wealth factor. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook are among the economic superpowers. Their market evaluation reaches up to 5 trillion USD. The money brings influence. The digital environment they are in brings control. The Big Five got where they are through fast growth that came from inventing previously uninvented and becoming monopolies in their industries. 

That’s why starting a privacy litigation with one of those companies is instantly bringing David vs Goliath comparisons. And in many cases, this holds to be true. Be it an ordinary user or a powerful governmental institution, the Big Tech usually finds the ways to evade legal responsibility. 

However, time after time the tech giants pay the price. Let’s take a closer look at some of the instances it happened.  

United States v Google (Buzz Safari)

What happened

There were two events that matter. 

Event 1

In 2011, FTC (Federal Trade Commission) started an administrative proceeding against Google claiming that the company has violated privacy according to FTC Act. The whole thing takes us back to the time when Google has launched a Google+ predecessor, similarly ill-fated Buzz. 

FTC complaint stated that “Google violated its privacy policies by using information provided for Gmail for another purpose – social networking – without obtaining consumers’ permission in advance”.

To launch Google Buzz, the company went straight to Gmail. Every user was sent a message announcing the launch and was given two options: “Sweet! Check out Buzz,” and “Nah, go to my inbox.”

In both cases, FTC found, Google has misled its users and did so violating its own privacy policy. What’s interesting, the violation was observed in both cases. When the users pressed “Nah…” they “were nonetheless enrolled in certain features of the Google Buzz social network”. When they pressed “Sweet!” “they were not adequately informed that the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would be made public by default”. 

And even if the poor users chose the third option “Turn Off Buzz”, FTC found that it “did not fully remove the user from the social network”. 

Anyway, both parties agreed to the consent order and it would be case closed for Google if the Event 2 hadn’t followed. Basically, it meant that Google was not found liable for any wrongdoing but it also introduced a twenty-year-long period when the company promised not to violate any similar privacy rules. 

Event 2

Not very surprisingly, Google’s promise didn’t last long. In 2012 FTC alleged that the company “violated the first part of the Buzz consent order through the placing of cookies on users’ computers without their knowledge”. And the cookies were placed not in any browser but in Apple’s Safari. 

Also, FTC said that Google did it in a sneaky fashion, tricking both their users and Apple enthusiasts along the way. The problem was that “Google does not offer the plugin to users of the Safari internet browser, but it assured users that the Safari default settings would block cookies.” 

Nevertheless, “Google overrode the Safari software that blocked cookies, and secretly collected cookies from Safari users.” Are we even surprised by this modus operandi?

Google denied any wrongdoing but was held liable in the end. 

Outcome of the case

Google had to pay a $22.5 million civil penalty (a record number for FTC). 

Why it mattered

This case was one of the pioneer privacy litigation on the internet where the big tech company was actually held liable and had to pay a fine. 

It was a case that turned a spotlight on the privacy violations going unnoticed hidden under the labyrinthine privacy policies of the tech giants and paved a way for the transatlantic discussions about the value of private information.


Read my other stuff:

Best free privacy tools to improve your security on the internet

I went through a paste of leaked passwords and it’s depressing

Here’s how to stop Google from tracking your location

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