Privacy advocates have been waiting for this one: Google agreed to pay a record $22.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it circumvented privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser. As part of the order, Google must disable all the tracking cookies it had said it would not place on consumers' computers.
The settlement is part of the FTC's ongoing efforts to make sure that companies live up to their own privacy policies. By imposing the largest fine it has ever obtained for a violation, the FTC hopes to send a clear message to other companies that might play fast and loose with privacy promises.
"No matter how big or small, all companies must abide by FTC orders against them and keep their privacy promises to consumers, or they will end up paying many times what it would have cost to comply in the first place," said Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC.
The settlement, approved 4-1 by the FTC, was not a surprise. However, commissioner Thomas Rosche opposed the settlement because he said it allows Google to deny culpability.
For several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed advertising tracking cookies on computers using Safari browsers despite a default setting to block third-party cookies and despite reassurances that as a member of the Network Advertising Alliance, it would honor the alliance's rules.
That action violated the settlement Google reached with the FTC in October 2011, which barred Google from misrepresenting the extent to which consumers can exercise control over the collection of their information.
Google continued to maintain it didn't intend to violate consumers' privacy. "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," a Google spokesperson said in a statement.
The ruling left some consumer advocates wanting more. "While the $22.5 million penalty levied against Google is a record for the FTC, it is woefully insufficient considering that Google refused to admit any liability or wrongdoing," said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's privacy project director. "The commission has allowed Google to buy its way out of trouble for an amount that probably is less than the company spends on lunches for its employees and with no admission it did anything wrong."
The settlement also brought the usual litany of press statements from lawmakers applauding the FTC for holding Google to its consent order. Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Commerce Committee who has been holding a series of privacy hearings, also took the opportunity to push for stricter privacy legislation to protect consumers.
"I will continue to push for common-sense privacy legislation to give consumers the ability to choose what information companies collect about them and how they use it. In the meantime, it is imperative that the FTC continues to make sure that individual companies abide by the promises they make about consumers' privacy. Without strong enforcement actions, companies have shown a preference for profits over consumer protection," Rockefeller said.