updated 07:15 pm EST, Mon November 18, 2013
Search and ad giant placed tracking cookies on users' machines without asking
In a final settlement with a Federal Court, Google will pay a fine of just $17 million - on top of a separate FTC fine of $22.5 million from last year - to 37 US states and the District of Columbia over its illegal use of surreptitious tracking cookies in Apple's Safari web browser, deliberately bypassing Apple's built-in anti-tracking technology. Google failed to inform users that it was monitoring where they surfed after visiting any sites that used Google's DoubleClick ad network in 2011 and 2012.
The ad and search giant insists that it did not gather what it defines as "private information" using the cookies, and that the whole tracking-cookie incident was a mistake based on a bug in Safari. Neither of these arguments held much sway with the court, since Apple explicitly blocked third-party cookies by default unless the user turned off that preference. Google argued that some cookie-based web features were still allowed through, creating the loophole they "inadvertently" exploited.
"Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of the settlement. "By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust." Also part of the settlement was a promise from Google to honor any web browsers' cookie-blocking feature unless given explicit permission from the user. Google must also work to better educate users about how web cookies work, what information they collect and how to manage them.
The original settlement amount was - rather surprisingly - the largest fine ever levied by the Federal Trade Commission for a civil violation. The two settlements, which total $40 million, highlights that even relatively large fines may not be an effective tool for reforming Google's behavior, given that it makes around $15 billion per quarter - with 96 percent of that coming directly from advertising. It would take Google about six hours to make back the sum total of monies paid in fines thus far.
The company has been in nearly-continuous hot water over various privacy snafus and violations for the past several years, including the "accidental" gathering of network and personal information from Wi-Fi networks as it drove cars around the world for its Google Maps project, and a lawsuit still pending in Canada over the company's http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/gmail-flagged-over-privacy-concerns-1.1411443scanning of private email looking for keywords it uses to help target advertising.