Yeah, A Class-Action Suit Will Help Search Engine Privacy

from the money-money-money dept

AOL’s release of search data from 500,000 users was, without a doubt, a serious gaffe. But it really appeared to be the result of a mistake (and a healthy dose of ineptitude) driven by good intentions — trying to give search researchers a large chunk of data to work with. Heads rolled, and the attention further brought the issue of online privacy into the light, and, all things considered, the information released wasn’t all that harmful to individual users. This isn’t to say that AOL’s release of the data was acceptable, but rather to illustrate that the company has likely learned its lesson — but when did that ever stop class-action lawyers from getting involved? A firm has now filed suit against AOL for the breach, seeking $1000 per user in damages, or $5000 if they live in California. What’s worse is that it also seeks to block AOL from storing search data altogether — a move that might preclude any further leaks, but would certainly prevent any useful application or new feature based on studying or utilizing past search info. This is absolutely silly. Class-action lawsuits typically only benefit the lawyers, who always somehow manage to negotiate themselves large fees in the inevitable settlement, but their greed shouldn’t be coupled with measures that serve to hurt the rest of a company’s customers — in this case, search engine users. At best, this suit will just line the lawyers’ pockets; at worst, it will severely hamper innovation in the search engine space. After all, if AOL will settle, expect teeming hordes of vultures to turn their attention to the likes of Google and Yahoo next. In any case, if users don’t want companies storing this type of data, there are other ways to demand it rather than by resorting to a class-action lawsuit. But somehow, it’s hard to believe that anything other than money is driving this lawsuit.

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Yeah, A Class-Action Suit Will Help Search Engine Privacy”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
PhysicsGuy says:


seriously, this nation of sue-happy people is going to hell on a handbasket. aol = inept (html tags cannot emphasize that word enough when it’s used in relation to aol) … we should all know this by now. however, from what i read there were a couple of people’s social security numbers (really, who does a search for their ss#? especially using an aol, lair of phishers, search engine). i’m not sure if names were matched to those social security numbers. if they were then a lawsuit from the individuals would make sense. i don’t see the point of a class action lawsuit though.

someone247356 says:

Sometimes money is all companies listen too

Too many companies keep way too much data about people as it is. you write, “…at worst, it will severely hamper innovation in the search engine space.” Just what type of ‘innovation’ are you hoping for?

1. Any data collected will inevitably be used inappropriately.
2. The longer data is kept, the more inevitable this becomes.
3. The more data collected, the greater the damage when it is used inappropriately.
4. A widely used uniquely identifying, unchangeable piece of data can be disproportionately harmful.

Look no further than the innocent Social Security Number. It’s just a number, well 9 digits actually. Everyone will get a unique government identifier, but don’t worry. It will just be used to keep track of your Social Security contributions. Oh, and your tax records at the IRS. And your loans, drivers license, school ID number, voting records, health insurance, …, video rental membership…. library card, etc, etc.

You really should “protect” your social security number they tell you, since everyone and their cousin uses it as the basis of their “secret” recipe for making sure your really you. If someone knows your Social Security Number (like your bank, employer, doctor, grocer, or video rental clerk) they will be able to “pretend” (pretexting anyone?) to be you and we will allow them to commit fraud in your name (identity theft).

If you ask them you’ll probably hear something like:

It’s not our fault, nope. It’s your fault for not managing your ‘identity’ correctly. It’s the governments for not passing more laws that let us demand lots of personal information from you, keep it indefinitely, use it how ever we see fit, and only punishing “other” “bad” people. Definitely not us though.

It’s our god given right to do what we want with “our” data (even if it’s about you). Are you trying to help the terrorists? Those despicable kiddy picture people? I know you will “severely hamper innovation in the search engine space”. That must be it.

Of course you know that Congress has spoken. Any attempt to use the courts to force us to change how we make money is obviously just greedy lawyers trying to take some of our patriotically hard won money for themselves. We aught to pass a law restricting people in this “sue-happy nation” from suing us. It will just serve to hurt the rest of our customers.

Yea right. Until Congress develops a backbone and actually starts passing laws that help the populous, instead of furthering corporate interests, I say go for it. Sue AOL. If it means that Yahoo, and Google, and Verizon, etc. stop collecting and keeping data about you forever it will have done a good thing. Bush’s subpoena of Google, MSN and Yahoo would have been useless if none of them retained search data. HP’s “pretexting” wouldn’t have been nearly as useful if phone companies purged their call records, etc, etc.

(just my $0.02, Canadian, before taxes)

Anonymous Coward says:

You do realize that class action lawsuits are actually on the decline, right? You do realize that amounts actually awarded are going down, right?

Everyone makes a big deal about the lawsuits that are filed, how bad it is for this country, how stupid it is, but the fact is, the judges and juries throughout America are the ones that decide the cases.

If lawyers know they can’t win, they won’t file the suit, because it would be a waste of time.

Look at Merck and Vioxx, they are going to court in thousands of cases, and they know they fucked up. If companies would actually care and were ethical, they typically don’t end up in court.

Robert Beens (user link) says:

Search engine privacy /'s solution

Dear editorial team,

Privacy concerns are becoming a major social and legal issue these days.
Search engines play an important role in the whole equation.
The recent AOL Privacy Breach is just one example of what can happen if search engine
user data are being stored.

Meta-search engine’s simple solution: “Data not stored can’t be breached”.
We are the first search engine to stop recording any privacy details of our users.
Seen the scope of your article I thought the following information would interest you.

Some background information:
-Ixquick is a meta search engine , developed in 1998 in NY.
-It offers a simultaneous search in up to 12 of the best search engines.
-Ixquick will not share IP addresses with these individual search engines while searching.
-Ixquick will delete the IP addresses of the users within 48 hrs.

In fact we have a program running which opens the log files, deletes the user related IP
addresses and overwrites the “old” logfile. Also we took away the unique ID out of our
Cookies, the Cookie is only used for remembering the settings on the user’s PC. We even
overwrite the “old” Cookie if a user has one on his PC from before this privacy initiative.

Conclusion: offers its users a high quality web search without storing any privacy data.

Our initiative is being met with overwhelmingly positive response.
You can read more about Ixquick’s Privacy initiative in the press release at

Please contact us if you would like additional information.


Robert Beens

Hishami Watsanabi says:

A good thing if tweaked

The class action could envariably be a good thing- if it could be modified to indicate that “there will be no search data retained that tracks or identifies an individual”.

If search engines need to retain data fine. So long as there is no way a “whoops” or purposeful breach endangers the sanctity of my personal information.

Jacob says:

Bad AOL- Bad, Bad, Bad

AOL industries is evil and corrupt. They charge an always increasing monthly rate for users to access info that would otherwise be free and install “helpful” add-ons that will undoubtedly destroy your machine and are nearly impossible to uninstall. They’ve been warned about keeping user data private and they have been named as “malware” by many people because of their practices. Even with this lawsuit pending, AOL still secretly installs Viewpoint player on everyone’s machine which has been suggested to collect data on everything and send it to AOL periodically.

This lawsuit is just and AOL should volunteer the $1000/$5000 settlements at a minimum. The FCC should step in and ban America Online from operating in the U.S. because AOL still intentionally collects and uses large amounts of data about every user, AOL and AIM, and uses/sells/broadcasts it.

And what is this data likely used for? Spoofing people into those crappy websites where it’s almost the site you were looking for but one letter is mispelled and every link on the page leads to a different scam and there are so many keywords on the page that google will display it in the top ten results for almost any query. To hell with anyone saying a Class-action suit isn’t waranted. If they can profit from the use of your identity, you should be entitled to alot more than $1000. Hell, for all the times their services weren’t working or your computer was broken from using them- AOL probably owes most americans somewhere around $10,000. I hope they go F*&@ing bankrupt!

Anonymous Coward says:

Dear Mr. Beens

Nice spam message, but here is a question. My question is who says its a good thing to not be able to track what individuals are doing online? Why should anyone expect this online when it doesn’t happen offline?

So I guess terrorists and criminals can be expected to populate your users? You going to have a testimonial from Osama? That will go over well.

In our new age, law enforcement has to deal with many challenges. They have to try to protect us while at the same time trying to gain information from someone who can walk into a library or use a hotspot to long on and send messages from a brand new hotmail account. That is why tracking patterns of communications is so important. Its less what the criminals are saying, but who they are saying it to.

Sites like yours defeats that, at least for now. Where will you be when the govt. requires you to collect information? Where will you be when the general public demands you to collect and store that information for their own protection? Where will you be when the Wall Street Journal writes a front page article about a case where a terrorist used your tools to facilitate an attack, researched targets etc. Where will you be when the FBI comes knocking on your door and you turn them away because you can’t help? Where will you be when the mother of a murdered child is interviewed on TV documenting your inability to help prosecute a pedophile that used your services to target that murdered child?

The world is not black and white, tracking information can be used for both good and bad. Ignoring the good isn’t a bright idea, even though it brings with it inherent risks to the general population. Are we willing to throw the good out with the bad?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Dear Mr. Beens

Congratulations on putting forth the argument in favor of keeping our information. But look at the big picture, and the likelihood that ANY of the aforementioned reasons for retaining information will happen at all… Then think about other things: all the items you mentioned are classic cases of inappropriate information being available on the internet already. Should those who put it there remove the information there would be no worries about someone searching for it–in any case, yes, we should be quite willing to throw out the benefits of tracking us through our information. Long story short, it is not the internet’s fault, nor the providers of information’s. Blah blah blah, double-edged sword. Freedom of information should not mean we need someone to watch over our shoulder the whole time to make sure we’re not doing anything wrong with it. Who says what’s considered wrong, and lastly, who watches the watchers? None of this is even remotely accountable to the average citizen.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...