Google Strikes $17M Settlement Deal in Safari Privacy Case

| Analysis

Internet search giant Google has agreed to a US$17 million settlement with 37 states and the District of Columbia for sidestepping the privacy settings in Apple's Safari Web browser. The settlement follows a similar deal with the Federal Trade Commission that led to a $22.5 million fine.

Google agrees to $17 million settlement in Safari privacy lawsuitGoogle agrees to $17 million settlement in Safari privacy lawsuit

The FTC and the states started their lawsuits after a researcher showed that Google had been circumventing the built-in privacy settings in Safari and Mobile Safari to track user's activities. The company had been placing browser cookies on user's computers that were specially designed to work around user's preferences.

Google was accused of 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. The Internet search company said that it wasn't doing anything wrong and was actually just taking advantage of "known functionality" in Safari.

The courts didn't agree, however, with Google's assessment of the situation, and moved forward with their lawsuits even though the company stopped the practice. In July 2012, Google agreed to pay an FTC fine of $22.5 million.

In response to Google's new settlement with the states, New York Attorney General Eric T Schneiderman said,

Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them. By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust. We must give consumers the reassurance that they can browse the Internet safely and securely.

Along with the $17 million fine, Google also agreed to not use cookies that override a user's browser settings, to not mislead consumers on how they can use Google products or manage advertisement settings, provide better information on how cookies are used with Google's services, and to put systems in place that ensure third party cookies properly expire.

While the settlement is a win for consumers that like to maintain their privacy online, it's a little bitter sweet because a class action lawsuit they brought against the company for privacy violations was tossed out of court. U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson issued the ruling in October based on her belief that the plaintiffs failed to show they had actually been harmed by Google's actions.

Whether or not Google circumvented Safari's privacy settings hasn't ever been in question. Instead, the company claimed it wasn't doing anything wrong and were just using Safari's to "provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled."

Regardless of Google's intent, the company left users feeling betrayed and questioning what else they might be hiding.

In the end, Google has tarnished its "do no evil" policy. The big lesson for anyone that uses Google's services is that "do no evil" doesn't equate to "always do good."

Comments

Lee Dronick

Bing!

wab95

And in other news, defendants in a recent bank heist contested that they weren’t doing anything wrong, they mere merely taking advantage of ‘known functionality’ in the bank vault’s locking mechanism. 

Just as a thought experiment, take the phrase,

Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them. By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust. We must give consumers the reassurance that they can browse the Internet safely and securely.

and replace ‘Google’ with the ‘NSA’ (or ‘MI5’, or whatever agency you love to loathe), and imagine the public reaction to the same revelation.

I continue to be fascinated by the apparent asymmetrical response to government vs private sector privacy violation on the part of the tech literate public.

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