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Supreme Court rules narrowly on Google settlement that gave to charities

The high court says Google users who sued might not have had grounds to do so.

The US Supreme Court said Thursday it isn't clear whether two tech users had the right to sue Google over privacy concerns.
CNET/Marguerite Reardon

A case before the US Supreme Court had the potential to change how tech giants pay for harming their users. Instead, the high court opted Thursday to send the case back to appeals court judges for a ruling on a key legal question -- who can sue tech companies for violations of privacy?

The case, Frank v. Gaos, started when two US Google users sued the company for sending information about their search terms to third parties. To settle the claims, Google agreed to pay more than $5 million to foundations and nonprofits with programs that raised user awareness about privacy. Another Google user named Theodore Frank objected to the settlement, saying the deal didn't directly benefit Google users.

In an unsigned opinion, the court said Thursday it was sending the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because "there remain substantial questions about whether any of the named plaintiffs has standing to sue."

Google declined to comment. Attorneys for Gaos didn't respond to a request for comment. 

"This decision simply delays the day of reckoning for this unfair practice," Frank said in a statement, referring to the practice of paying out settlements to charitable organizations.

The ruling echoed questions from Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg during oral arguments for the case in October, who wondered aloud whether the Ninth Circuit had failed to address the Supreme Court's ruling in Spokeo v. Robins, a case that said tech users need to clear a high bar to prove they were injured by a privacy violation.

But the court said in its opinion Thursday that it was up to the Ninth Circuit to decide whether the Google users had grounds to sue. "Nothing in our opinion should be interpreted as expressing a view on any particular resolution of the standing question," the court said.

Correction, 5:32 p.m.: Fixes name of Spokeo v. Robins case.