Google has reached a monumental settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit, promising to delete billions of records and imposing restrictions on its ability to track users’ online activities. The proposed settlement, aimed at resolving a lawsuit filed in the US in 2020, alleges that Google violated users’ privacy by collecting their data even while they were browsing in “private mode.”

The lawsuit, seeking US$5 billion in damages, accused the tech giant of invasive data collection practices. While Google supports the settlement, it disputes the allegations. Nonetheless, the company has already made alterations in response to the lawsuit, including updating its disclosures to clarify its tracking practices, particularly in its “Incognito” mode.

In this mode, which provides heightened privacy by not saving browsing activity locally, Google still tracked user data, prompting criticism and legal action. As part of the settlement terms, Google agreed to ensure automatic blocking of third-party cookies for all Google Chrome users, extending the measure it previously applied to Incognito users. Additionally, it committed to maintaining this restriction for five years.

Moreover, Google pledged to delete “hundreds of billions” of records of private browsing data it had amassed. According to a court filing, the company emphasised its commitment to delete old technical data that was not associated with individuals or used for personalisation.

Google spokesman Jorge Castaneda expressed satisfaction with the settlement, asserting the company’s belief that the lawsuit lacked merit and clarifying that no damages would be paid. However, Google faces ongoing lawsuits over privacy violations, which could potentially result in financial penalties.

Attorney David Boies hailed the settlement as a significant move towards holding dominant technology companies accountable. The lawsuit uncovered internal documents wherein Google employees referred to the Incognito mode as “effectively a lie” and “a confusing mess.”

Despite Google’s attempts to dismiss the case, Judge Yvonne Rogers ruled against the motion, stating that users did not consent to the extensive data collection practices alleged in the lawsuit. The proposed settlement will now undergo court approval.

This settlement comes amidst heightened scrutiny of big tech firms in the US and worldwide. Google, along with its parent company Alphabet, faces multiple antitrust cases from the federal government. Notably, the tech giant recently settled other legal disputes, including claims of tracking users’ locations against their preferences and allegations of anti-competitive practices in its Play Store for Android devices.