Photograph by Philippe Huguen — AFP/Getty Images
By Jeff John Roberts
August 30, 2016

Google agreed to a settlement on Monday that could finally end the legal fall-out from a scheme by the search giant to circumvent privacy settings on Apple’s Safari browser. The tactic, discovered by security researchers in 2012, involved Google tricking consumers’ browsers into accepting ad-tracking software.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, filed in Delaware federal court, Google (GOOG) will pay $5.5 million to resolve a long-running class action lawsuit—but affected consumers will see none of that money. Instead, some of the cash will go to legal fees and settlement expenses while the rest will go to a handful of privacy groups. (You can read a copy of the settlement here.)

The deal will also permit Google to deny any fault over the browser hacking, which caused a major controversy when it was discovered, and raised questions about the extent to which tech companies track consumers’ online behavior.

The hack itself involved a default setting on Apple’s (AAPL) desktop and mobile Safari browser that rejected so-called “cookies”—small bits of software code that keep track of the websites a consumers visits in order to serve them ads. Google got around the setting by disguising their cookies in a way that qualified for a loophole in the Safari settings. (You can read a technical explanation here.)

After Google’s practice came to light, the company agreed to pay $17 million to state attorneys general over privacy violations, and another $22.5 million to the Federal Trade Commission for violating the terms of an earlier settlement. In both cases, Google denied any wrong-doing—an outcome an FTC Commissioner then described as “inexplicable.”

The effect of Monday’s deal is that it could put an end to the related class action litigation, which has bounced around the courts for years. Last year, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals revived parts of a case a lower court judge had dismissed, leading the parties to ask Supreme Court earlier this year to review parts of the appeal.

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The proposed settlement, however, must be approved by a judge and that outcome is not a sure thing. While judges are typically quick to bless class action settlements, some have decided to reject arrangements—like the one involving Google—in which the settlement money is paid to outside groups rather than consumers.

Google declined to comment about the settlement, and lawyers for the plaintiffs did not respond to a request for comment. News of the settlement came in June, but its details were only filed this week.

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