The details of Google’s settlement in a multiyear lawsuit over Incognito mode became public this week. The lawsuit argued that Incognito mode isn’t actually incognito, violating several federal and California state laws, including illegal wiretapping, invasion of privacy, and breach of contract. The class was seeking $5 billion (not a typo) in damages. While the settlement doesn’t require Google to pay the claimants, the company has agreed to make significant changes.

What Happened?

Google captured users’ data in ways they didn’t expect (see also: Glassdoor, Meta, Sephora, and countless others). When the lawsuit was filed in 2020, the splash page that greeted Chrome users when they launched an incognito window said, “Now you can browse privately.” That language turned out to be misleading. Websites could still track users’ activities, and Google itself was allegedly collecting user data via not just Chrome but also its Analytics and Ads products. One discovery that the lawsuit revealed was internal communications in which employees called Incognito mode “effectively a lie,” “a problem of professional ethics and basic honesty,” and a “confusing mess.”

What Does The Settlement Mean For Google?

The settlement generated the headline-grabbing factoid that Google will destroy data. For example, CNN reported that Google will delete “billions of browser records.” But that’s only part of the story. As a result of the settlement, Google will:

  • Delete some browsing data. Google will delete some data to restore Incognito-mode anonymity. It will partially redact IP addresses and generalize user agent strings. And it will generalize browsing histories: Instead of logging the exact URLs that a user visited in Incognito mode, it will only keep domain-level URLs. In a theoretical example, Google could see that an Incognito-mode user visited but not the specific Forrester reports and blog posts that the user read.
  • Update its explanation of Incognito mode. This is already live today — Google made the change earlier this year in response to the lawsuit. When Incognito mode launches, the splash page says, “This won’t change how data is collected by websites you visit and the services they use, including Google.” And the definitive claim of “you can browse privately” has been softened to “you can browse more privately.”
  • Block third-party cookies by default in Incognito mode. This change is also already live and only needs to be in effect for five years. But the timeline is mostly moot, as Google has begun the process of deprecating third-party cookies for all Chrome users (Incognito or not) this year.
  • Stop capturing header data on whether a user is using Incognito mode or not. This change is more technical, but in short, Chrome won’t log if a user is using Incognito mode or not when a web page loads.

What Does The Settlement Mean For Marketers?

The exact impact on marketers is tough to gauge, as key parts of the case and settlement are redacted or sealed. Based on what is public, marketers can expect:

  • A smaller addressable universe in Chrome. Blocking third-party cookies by default for all Incognito-mode users accelerates Google’s cookie deprecation timeline. While the exact number of how many Chrome sessions use Incognito mode isn’t public, Forrester’s data shows that 23% of US online adults use a private or incognito mode in their internet browser. Competing browsers such as Firefox and Safari already block third-party cookies by default for all users.
  • Diminished ability to track users across Incognito and non-Incognito modes. Once Google obfuscates IP addresses and user agent strings, it will be more difficult to track users who toggle between Incognito and non-Incognito modes. For the record, that’s a good thing! If a user is choosing to use Incognito mode, that’s an indication that they do not want to be tracked.
  • The end of private browsing prompts. Some websites have experimented with different splash pages or pop-ups for users browsing in Incognito mode, such as publications enforcing a paywall or changing their sales pitch for a subscription. With Chrome removing the header data on whether someone’s using Incognito mode or not, marketers will likely lose the ability to splinter customer journeys based on someone’s web browser status.
  • More complaints, lawsuits, and fines about customer data use. This is the latest example in a long-running saga of customers acting as their own privacy advocates. While Google dodged a hefty payment here, it still has to make significant changes and will still face separate damages claims in California courts. Stay ahead of customers’ privacy concerns by being honest and transparent about how you collect and use their data, and maintain customer goodwill by being strategic about how much data you capture in the first place.