Google to pay $22.5 million for breaching privacy on Apple’s Safari browser
August 13, 2012
Google, however has said the whole affair was a ‘mistake’ and said it has discontinued the practice of placing unauthorized cookies on users’ machines
James R Hood (ConsumerAffairs.com)
US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has directed Google to pay $22.5 million for violating consumer privacy settings on Apple’s Safari browser. It is the largest civil penalty ever assessed by the FTC for violating its order. What irked the Commission was that Google said that the privacy violation was not deliberate.
Google has said the whole affair was a ‘mistake’ and said it has discontinued the practice of placing unauthorized cookies on users’ machines as soon as the Wall Street Journal published a story about it.
However, David Vladeck, Director of Consumer Protection at the FTC said, “I think that defence raises red flags to regulators.”
“Their intent is immaterial. It’s troubling to us that Google says they didn’t know it was going on. A company like Google is the steward of personal information from hundreds of millions of people and they have to do better,” Vladeck added.
In addition to the civil penalty, the FTC order also requires Google to disable all the tracking cookies it had said it would not place on consumers’ computers.
In the conference call, James Kohm, Associate Director for Enforcement at the FTC, said that most of the illicit cookies have already been removed but said that under the terms of the order, Google has until 15 February 2014 to remove all of them. “The extra time is because they can only remove the cookies when somebody visits a site in their ad network,” Kohm said.
It’s the latest in a long series of ‘accidental’ privacy violations by Google. It pales in comparison to the so-called “Wi-Spy” case in 2010, when Google admitted it invaded Wi-Fi networks and downloaded private data from those networks as its fleet of gadget-encumbered cars crept through neighbourhoods around the world, collecting information for its street-mapping project.
The Commission in April fined Google $25,000, saying it was obstructing the agency’s investigation of the matter. As usual, Google said any such obstruction was inadvertent. It didn’t apologize.
Last year, in a settlement with the Justice Department, Google agreed to pay a $500 million penalty for promoting and advertising unlawful sales of prescription drugs through its ubiquitous AdWords program. It said its role in establishing a global network of illicit drug sites was unintentional.
Responding to queries about whether the penalty was adequate, Vladeck said Google was “paying a heavy price.”
“$22.5 million may not seem like a lot of money to Google but given the magnitude and duration of this violation, we think it's quite substantial,” he said. “We have Google under order for another 19 years and this sends a message that the FTC isn’t kidding around,” he added.
In its complaint, the FTC charged that for several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the computers of Safari users who visited sites within Google’s DoubleClick advertising network, although Google had previously told these users they would automatically be opted out of such tracking, as a result of the default settings of the Safari browser used in Macs, iPhones and iPads.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Google specifically told Safari users that because the Safari browser is set by default to block third-party cookies, as long as users do not change their browser settings, this setting “effectively accomplishes the same thing as (opting out of this particular Google advertising tracking cookie).” In addition, Google represented that it is a member of an industry group called the Network Advertising Initiative, which requires members to adhere to its self-regulatory code of conduct, including disclosure of their data collection and use practices.
The FTC charged that Google’s misrepresentations violated a settlement it reached with the agency in October 2011, which barred Google from—among other things—misrepresenting the extent to which consumers can exercise control over the collection of their information. The earlier settlement resolved FTC charges that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its privacy promises when it launched its social network, Google Buzz.