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Cookie monster: Google slapped with record fine for tracking users

Published time: August 10, 2012 09:33
Edited time: August 10, 2012 13:33
AFP  Photo / Justin Sullivan

AFP Photo / Justin Sullivan

In a continuous effort to insure that high-tech companies adhere to privacy promises and consumer protection, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has fined Google a record $22.5 million for violating privacy assurances on Apple's Safari Web.

­The FTC has charged the internet heavyweight of using tracking cookies to record consumer behavior across its subsidiary.

Safari is a web browser developed by Apple Inc, yet it is widely used by the Microsoft Windows operating system. DoubleClick is a subsidiary of Google that develops and provides internet ad serving services. The FTC found that those who have been using Apple’s Safari on Google’s product were being tracked by Google until the loophole was discovered by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer in February.

The FTC charged that Google’s deceptive conduct had breached a settlement it reached with the government organization in October 2011, when the company’s now- invalid Buzz social networking service exposed people's email contacts.

Following the FTC enquiry into the Buzz scandal, Google reached an agreement with the regulator whereby the company consented to a 20-year monitoring period and an audit of its consumer practices. It also pledged not to mislead its users about privacy issues.

According to government's allegations, Google bypassed Apple software's privacy settings to track users across the DoubleClick advertising network. That tracking provided DoubleClick with a roadmap of individual tastes and gave a better handle of what kinds of marketing to show to a particular individual.

In the record-breaking settlement Google did not admit to violating the law. The company stated that its actions were unintentional and were the result of a change in Safari, of which Google was unaware.

“We set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users," a Google spokesman wrote in a statement to Businessweek. "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."

Yet the FTC wants more social responsibility from Sergey Brin's company.

“It's a big company. It's grown very quickly, but the social contract is, if you are going to hold on to people's most private data, you have got to do a better job of honoring your privacy commitment,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection.

The FTC has also declared that it will not tolerate similar confidentiality breaches in the future from any of the high-tech companies.

"The record-setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order," said Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC. "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.”

The government watchdog has ordered Google to disable all the tracking cookies by 2013.

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