Google is looking at a $22.5 million fine for privacy violations, according to news reports. The fine would be based on levels established under last year's 20-year consent decree between the technology giant and the Federal Trade Commission.
The fine would be the largest ever in FTC history, and, according to The Wall Street Journal and others, is due to Google's bypassing the "Do Not Track" setting in Apple users' Safari browsers.
'Known Safari Functionality'
When set, "Do Not Track" is supposed to prevent cookies, or small tracking files, from being deposited on a user's computer by Web sites that have been visited. Tracking via cookies is widely used by advertising networks in order to better accumulate data about the behavioral profiles of site visitors and to better target ads.
In February, the Journal reported that Google was tracking Safari users who had selected "Do Not Track," a fact which had originally been discovered by a Stanford researcher. The technology giant said it discontinued the practice after the Journal story appeared.
A Google Help page, which had said that Safari users could avoid tracking by utilizing "Do Not Track," was taken down about the same time. Google has said that the page was posted in 2009, before Apple modified the way Safari manages cookies.
According to the Journal, Google code had allowed it to avoid Safari's privacy setting by exploiting what the technology company has called "a known Safari functionality," in order to install cookies that aided in the display of ads with a +1 button. The +1 button, a tie-in to the Google+ social network , was designed to allow viewers to indicate they liked the ad by clicking the button. But clicking the button also allowed additional cookies to be installed, and thus wider tracking to occur.
'Do No Evil'?
Google has said that the +1 ads were intended to add value for users who were also logged in to the Google+ network. It also has contended that the depositing of additional cookies after the +1 button was clicked was a mistake, and that, at any rate, none of the cookies captured individually identifiable information.
If a fine is enacted for this violation, it will be another mark on Google's privacy profile. Last year's 20-year consent decree with the FTC was due to various privacy violations, and it specifically mandated that Google not misrepresent its privacy practices and that it set up internal procedures to strengthen its privacy protections. The agreement also set the fines for violations.
In addition to this episode, the company's major privacy controversies have included ones surrounding its now-defunct Buzz social platform, and the capture of private data around the world by its Street View cars, along with data for Google Maps.
We asked Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, if Google's continuing privacy problems are tarnishing the brand.
He replied that they were, and that they solidify "a now-commonly held assumption that Google puts its ad money first." Shimmin noted that the company had to have known about the various cookies being deposited by Safari users, because it was most likely receiving streams of data.
Google's continuing string of privacy issues, he said, is "undermining its long-time corporate motto of 'Do No Evil.' "