August 10, 2012, 11:44 AM

Google settles a privacy dispute with the FTC

At issue was Google’s use of cookies in some DoubleClick ads.

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Google Inc. has agreed to settle a charge levied by the Federal Trade Commission that the search giant violated a settlement the two groups agreed to last October. Google will pay a $22.5 million civil penalty to settle the charges.

At issue was Google’s use of cookies in some ads distributed via the company’s DoubleClick ad network in 2011 and 2012. The web cookies, which are small bits of code, made it possible for Google to track the online behavior of consumers using Apple Inc.’s Safari web browser, even though the Safari web browser, by default, blocks the installation of cookies from ad networks unless the user interacts with the ad. Google disseminated some ads that included coding that tricked the Safari web browser into thinking users had interacted with the ads, even though the shopper had not clicked on the ad. A loophole in the Safari browser lets companies easily add more cookies once they’ve been allowed to install one cookie, which meant Google could then add more cookies to Safari users’ computers.

Google disabled the ad code and began removing the tracking cookies at issue after news articles revealed the practice in February. A spokeswoman at the time said that Google hadn’t anticipated that the use of the first cookie would allow for the installation of more, and that news articles had mischaracterized Google’s actions.

Still, the practice ran against what Google told Safari users on a help page that detailed how to block advertising cookies. Because of that, Google violated its previous agreement with the FTC, the agency says. That agreement said Google had to ensure that users of its products are fully aware of how their personal information will be used, and barred Google from misrepresenting how much control consumers had over the collection of that information. The FTC complaint says Google told Safari users they did not have to change their default settings in Safari because the default setting already blocked Google ad tracking cookies. 

“The record-setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order,” says Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, in announcing the settlement. The FTC says the settlement terms do not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Google.

“We set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users,” a Google spokeswoman says. “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.”

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