Google to Pay $17 Million to Settle Privacy Case


Google agreed on Monday to pay $17 million to 37 states and the District of Columbia in a wide-reaching settlement over tracking consumers online without their knowledge.

Google to Pay $17 Million to Settle Privacy Case

The case involved Google’s bypassing of privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser to use cookies to track users and show them advertisements in 2011 and 2012. Google has said it discontinued circumventing the settings early last year, after the practice was publicly reported, and stopped tracking Safari users and showing them personalized ads.

The fine is a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars that Google earns in advertising revenue each year. But the case is one of a growing pile of government investigations, lawsuits and punishments related to privacy matters at the company. They include cases involving a social networking tool called Buzz, illegal data collection by Street View vehicles and accusations of wiretapping to show personalized ads in Gmail.

“Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them,” Eric T. Schneiderman, attorney general of New York, said in a statement. “By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust.”

Google, in a statement, said: “We work hard to get privacy right at Google and have taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers. We’re pleased to have worked with the state attorneys general to reach this agreement.”

In addition to the fine, Google also agreed to avoid using software code that overrides a browser’s cookie-blocking settings, to avoid omitting or misrepresenting information to consumers about how they use Google products or control the ads they see, to maintain for five years a web page explaining what cookies are and how to control them, and to ensure that the cookies tied to Safari browsers expire.

“We look at this and say it’s a good development for online privacy when the state attorneys general are able to enforce their laws and get Google to change their practices,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy research nonprofit that has filed complaints against Google.

Since the Google case began, tracking technology has moved beyond cookies, particularly on mobile devices, which do not use cookies in apps. Regulators and industry groups trying to come up with standards for digital tracking have failed to keep up with the changes.

For instance, Google is considering an anonymous identifier, tied to users of its Chrome browser on a specific device, that advertisers would use instead of cookies to target ads. And it introduced new tools like one to track consumers across devices and tell marketers whether a consumer makes a purchase on a computer after researching an item on a phone.

Safari, unlike other browsers, blocks cookies from ad networks like Google’s. But Google had been exploiting a loophole to avoid the block, install cookies and track Safari users to show them personalized ads. Google has said its actions were unintentional and resulted from a change in Safari of which Google was unaware.

Last year, Google agreed to a $22.5 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the same privacy violation, which the commission said broke the terms of an earlier privacy settlement. It was the largest civil penalty in F.T.C. history. Last month, a Delaware judge dismissed a class-action suit over the same issue.

In both the settlement with the F.T.C. and with the states, Google denied any wrongdoing. At the time of the federal settlement, a commissioner, J. Thomas Rosch, said the commission should not have accepted Google’s denial, which he called “inexplicable.”

Source: nytimes

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