Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on new research by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer that shows four companies seek to circumvent consumers’ privacy settings in Apple’s browser, Safari. The four companies are: Google, Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group and PointRoll. Google said the circumvention was a mistake and it has disabled the code, but there was intense public criticism. Congressmen sought answers: Reps. Edward J. Markey (D.-Mass.), Joe Barton (R.-Texas) and Cliff Stearns (R.-Fla.) — all members of the Privacy Caucus — wrote to (pdf) the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate Google’s actions. The World Privacy Forum filed a complaint (pdf) with the FTC asking the agency to “investigate Google, Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group, and Pointroll for potential violations of Section 5 of the FTC Act.” Both the congressmen and the World Privacy Forum noted that Google’s actions might violated a settlement it made with the FTC last year over Google’s Buzz product. The Internet services giant agreed to a comprehensive privacy program to settle charges (pdf) it “used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched its social network, Google Buzz.
Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that there are new investigations into Google’s actions in bypassing Safari’s privacy settings:
Regulators in the U.S. and European Union are investigating Google Inc. for bypassing the privacy settings of millions of users of Apple Inc.’s Safari Web browser, according to people familiar with the investigations. [...]
The investigations—which span U.S. federal and state agencies, as well as a pan-European effort led by France—could embroil Google in years of legal battles and result in hefty fines for privacy violations. The Journal in February reported that Google was using special computer code to install tiny tracking files, or “cookies,” on some people’s computers, iPhones and iPads, even if the devices were set to block this kind of tracking.
“We will of course cooperate with any officials who have questions,” a Google spokeswoman said. “But it’s important to remember that we didn’t anticipate this would happen, and we have been removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers.”
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission is examining whether Google’s actions violated last year’s legal settlement with the government in which Google pledged not to “misrepresent” its privacy practices to consumers, according to people familiar with the investigation. [...]
A group of state attorneys general, including New York’s Eric Schneiderman and Connecticut’s George Jepsen, are also investigating Google’s circumvention of Safari’s privacy settings, according to people familiar with the investigation. State attorneys general can have the ability to levy fines of up to $5,000 per violation.
In Europe, the French Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, or CNIL, has added the Safari circumvention technique to its existing pan-European investigation into Google’s privacy-policy changes, according to a person close to the investigation. The CNIL is the agency that levied a €100,000 ($130,960) fine on Google last year for collecting passwords and other personal information when Google vehicles were gathering information for its Street View map service.
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