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Google hit with record $22.5 million fine for Safari tracking

By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Google agreed to pay a record $22.5 million fine to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission that it violated a pledge to protect the privacy of its users who use Apple’s Safari browser.

The FTC is ramping up its efforts to protect the online privacy of consumers and said it levied the largest fine in its history against Google to send a clear message to the Internet giant, which bypassed Apple software’s privacy settings to track users across the Web. The FTC said the behavior violated terms of the settlement Google reached with the commission last year over its now-defunct Buzz social networking service.

The FTC ordered Google to disable all the tracking cookies by next year. Tracking cookies are snippets of computer code that collect information about how users browse the Web and can be used to show users ads based on their browsing history.

The FTC said that Google informed Safari users that since the browser blocks third-party cookies, they did not need to opt out of online tracking. Yet Google in fact placed a temporary cookie on computers, tablets and mobile devices, a privacy breach first reported by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer.

In reaching the settlement, Google did not admit any liability.

“We set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users,” Google said in an emailed statement. “The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page published more than two years before our consent decree, and a year before Apple changed its cookie-handling policy. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers.”

Google did not contest the facts in the FTC complaint and its defense that it was unaware of what it was doing was “immaterial,” David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s bureau of competition, said on a conference call Thursday following the announcement.

Google has increasingly found itself in the regulatory crosshairs as privacy advocates decry how it handles users’ personal information as it looks to maintain its dominance in search, which still makes up the bulk of its revenue.

The FTC says it will continue to monitor Google to ensure that it does not engage in deceptive practices. Google has 19 years left on the 20-year settlement it reached last year that prevents the search giant from misrepresenting how it handles user information and requires Google to submit to regular privacy audits.

Vladek said the “magnitude of the violation” called for a “substantial civil penalty” and that the FTC would levy stiffer penalties for future violations.

“Google is paying what we think is a heavy price,” Vladek said. “This sends the message that the FTC isn’t kidding around.”

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said he was pleased with the FTC’s action to protect consumers’ online privacy.

“The FTC fine follows from the complaint that EPIC brought about Google Buzz. Google’s hack of the Safari browser clearly violated the terms of the order,” Rotenberg said.

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