Bloomberg News

Google Accord With Harvard Tie Fails Judge’s Smell Test

August 29, 2014

Google Inc. (GOOG:US)’s settlement of a privacy lawsuit probably won’t win approval because it includes a donation to an Internet research center at Harvard University and to other schools that attorneys who brought the case attended, a judge said.

U.S. District Judge Edward Davila voiced his concerns at a hearing today in San Jose, California, over the settlement of a suit claiming the company transferred personal information contained in user searches to third parties including marketers and data brokers. The proposed accord includes several million dollars of funding for privacy research earmarked for institutes at Harvard, Stanford University and Chicago-Kent College of Law.

“The elephant in the room is that many of them are law schools that you attended,” Davila said. The judge said he had expected a wider net to be cast, and that it was exactly the same list of recipients as the lawyers presented to him a year ago.

“I’m disappointed that the usual suspects are still usual,” Davila said. The lack of transparency in the selection process “raises a red flag” and “doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

Kassra Nassiri, a lead lawyer in the case, went to Harvard Law School and earned a master’s degree at Stanford. Michael Aschenbrener, another lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, has a degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law and is based in Chicago.

Berkman Center

Nassiri told the judge that apart from attending Harvard, he has no connection to the the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the university.

Nassiri and Aschenbrener also told Davila that the little guidance from courts about how to select such recipients suggests they should have a good track record in the areas of research that they plan to spend the money on.

Randall Edwards, a lawyer for Google, argued that the institutions selected guarantee that the money isn’t being steered to an inappropriate recipient.

The choices show Google isn’t simply “throwing funds” at programs, he said. Another recipient, the American Association of Retired Persons, shows that there’s some diversity in the programs selected, he said.

Google was accused in the lawsuit of “consistently and intentionally” designing its searches to collect and send data -- including names, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, account numbers, medical information and political beliefs -- and allowing the information to be sold and resold to “countless other third parties.”

Google, Facebook Inc. (FB:US), Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US) and other Internet companies are facing numerous lawsuits over how they convert users’ personal data into advertising dollars.

$2 Million

Davila also heard today from an objector to the settlement, Theodore Frank, a lawyer at the Washington-based Center for Class Action Fairness. Frank told Davila the settlement is unfair because it promises more than $2 million in fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers seek and gives class members nothing.

If the case went to trial, there would be several billion of dollars at stake based on Google’s alleged violation of federal wiretap laws, Frank said in an interview after the hearing. The case may be a longshot and there may not be much value lost in giving up the right to sue as part of the settlement, he said.

“But Google is paying $2 million to get rid of the case, and the attorneys are taking it all for themselves,” he said.

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard University, Lisa Lapin at Stanford University and Nicole Lacey at Illinois Institute of Technology, home to Chicago-Kent College of Law, didn’t immediately respond to e-mails seeking comment on the proposed settlement.

The case is In re Google Referrer Header Privacy Litigation, 10-cv-04809, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).

To contact the reporter on this story: Joel Rosenblatt in San Francisco at jrosenblatt@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net Peter Blumberg, Andrew Dunn


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