Google Sued Over Purported Privacy Violations for Real-Time Bidding Auctions

On Wednesday, consumers filed a class-action complaint against Google LLC in the Northern District of California, alleging that Google falsely presents that it protects its consumers’ privacy and instead engages in various privacy violations through its targeted ad bidding system.

According to the complaint, Google has often said “that it values privacy and gives users control of their personal information” going as far as promising users that “it ‘will never sell any personal information to third parties’ and ‘you get to decide how your information is used.’” However, the plaintiff contended that these are false promises because Google allegedly “monitors its consumers’ digital footprint, then makes billions of dollars by selling their sensitive personal information.”

Reportedly, Google continues to surreptitiously share its users’ sensitive personal information to third parties through its Real-Time Bidding (RTB) system. The plaintiffs noted that RTB is the process by which the digital ads on the internet are “curated.” Specifically, there is an auction for each ad, which occurs “milliseconds before it shows up in a users’ browser or in a() mobile application.” The plaintiffs claimed that during this auction, “hundreds of third parties receive sensitive personal information about the potential recipient of the ad,” such as “device identifiers, cookies, detailed location data, IP address, browsing history, demographic and biometric information, among other things; this personal information is called the bidstream data.

Allegedly, all of the bidders and participants receive this personal information and “are able to save, store and monetize the Consumer’s personal information,” despite only one bidder winning the auction, who uses “that information to deliver an advertisement to the consumer.” The plaintiffs claimed that few people realize that “Google is allowing so many companies to siphon off and store this highly personal ‘bidstream’ data, which is then sold” to others and monetized. According to the plaintiffs, Google knows that “many participants do not place bids and only participate to conduct surveillance and collect ever more detailed data points about millions of Google’s Consumers,” which Google purportedly profits from via more bidders and higher bids.

The plaintiffs proffered that Google’s purported privacy violations are large-scale and Google is able to access extensive consumer data “by its various (and often seemingly free) consumer products,” such as its search engine, Google Chrome web-browser, Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, Android, among others. According to the plaintiffs, “(e)ach of these products provides Google with an opportunity to gather detailed personal information about its consumers as they engage online in real-time.” Allegedly, Google collects this information and data “to build massive repositories of the most current information available about the people using its services to sell it to Google’s partners.” However, Google allegedly does not disclose the alleged practice because it would lead to a decrease in user engagement, which would then cause a decrease in ad revenue. The plaintiffs again contrasted the purported practices with Google’s claims about user privacy, adding that Google’s privacy claims “are intentionally false.”

The plaintiffs added that Google also collects “so-called ‘vertical’ information about the Google Customer’s interests that is associated with the bid that can include information relating to race, religion, health, and sexual orientation. The vertical information is collected by Google over time and organized for each and every Google customer by algorithm into thousands of consumer categories that identify the user’s personal habits, interests and preferences.” Google also purportedly provides a service that helps RTB bidders match up customer bidstream data with the library of information they have already collected on that specific user. The plaintiffs added that Google is able to charge high prices to RTB bidders because of the “extensive and detailed nature of this personalized profile” for each consumer. The plaintiffs averred that Google’s conduct violates federal and California law and Congressional inquiry via a letter to the Federal Trade Commission has not stopped this conduct.

The class consists of: “all persons residing in the United States with a Google Account who used the Internet using a Chrome browser on or after Google began using RTB in a manner that disclosed Google Customers’ personal information.”

The 15 causes of action, include: unjust enrichment, violations of the California Unfair Competition Law, violation of the California Invasion of Privacy Act, violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, violation of the ECPA Wiretap and Stored Communications Act, violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act, breach of contract, and statutory civil larceny.

The plaintiffs seek an award for damages and unjust enrichment; declaratory and injunctive relief; an award for costs and fees; and other relief.

The plaintiffs are represented by Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP and Knox Ricksen LLP.