U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson handed Google a big win this week when she dismissed the class action lawsuit alleging the Internet search giant was bypassing Safari's privacy settings. According to the Judge, Google did actually did circumvent the browser privacy settings, but that the plaintiffs didn't show they had been harmed by the action.
Google gets a pass on circumventing consumer privacy
Google had been accused with intentionally working around the privacy settings in Apple's Safari Web browser to track user's online activity and then sell the data to the online advertising companies such as Media Innovation and Vibrant Media, who were also named in the suit. When the do not track settings are enabled in Safari, companies aren't supposed to be able to collect information from users, although Google found a way to work around that.
News that Google was circumventing Safari's privacy settings surfaced in February 2012 when a researcher showed that the company was placing specially crafted cookies into online ads that allowed tracking even when the browser's privacy settings said otherwise. Google responded by saying it wasn't doing anything wrong and was actually just taking advantage of "known functionality" in Safari.
Google wasn't alone, because Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group, and PointRoll were doing the same thing.
When the Federal Trade Commission started looking into Google's actions, the company agreed to pay a US$22.5 million fine even though it claimed it hadn't done anything wrong. The company also backtracked on its earlier defense and said the tracking was unintentional and that users weren't actually harmed.
Judge Robinson agreed in part with Google in that consumers weren't harmed. A Google spokesperson said the company was pleased with the ruling, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The ruling doesn't mean that Google didn't bypass Safari's privacy settings and track user activity even when they explicitly blocked tracking because that's exactly what happened. What it means is that the plaintiffs couldn't prove they were actually harmed by Google's actions. The end result, however, is the same: Google now knows it can surreptitiously track consumer's online activity without fear of serious repercussions, and that's a big blow to online privacy.