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    Update: Google to Pay $22.5 Million Fine to Settle FTC Charges on Safari Browser Privacy

    To recap: In February, 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 (pdf) public criticism, including a complaint (pdf) filed with the Federal Trade Commission. Questions were raised about whether the Safari circumvention meant that Google had 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 FTC has announced a settlement with Google concerning privacy charges related to the Safari browser:

    Google Inc. has agreed to pay a record $22.5 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it misrepresented to users of Apple Inc.’s Safari Internet browser that it would not place tracking “cookies” or serve targeted ads to those users, violating an earlier privacy settlement between the company and the FTC.

    The settlement is part of the FTC’s ongoing efforts make sure companies live up to the privacy promises they make to consumers, and is the largest penalty the agency has ever obtained for a violation of a Commission order.  In addition to the civil penalty, the order also requires Google to disable all the tracking cookies it had said it would not place on consumers’ computers.  [...]

    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.

    Despite these promises, the FTC charged that Google placed advertising tracking cookies on consumers’ computers, in many cases by circumventing the Safari browser’s default cookie-blocking setting. [...]

    The Commission vote to authorize the staff to refer the complaint to the Department of Justice, and to approve the proposed consent decree, was 4-1 with Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch dissenting.

    In a statement to the Washington Post, Google said: “We set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users. 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.”

    More information about the case can be found at the Tech@FTC blog and all the case documents can be found here.

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