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Google to pay $22.5m for Safari privacy bungle

Google is set to pay a US$22.5-million fine for overriding the privacy settings on Safari and tracking the browsing habits of its users.

Stuart Thomas: Motorburn Editor
Stuart Thomas joined the Burn Media team in 2011 while finishing off an MA in South African Literature. Eager to prove his geek credentials, he allowed himself... More

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According to the Wall Street Journal, the fine is the biggest ever slapped on a company by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Back in February the Journal reported that Google had “used special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users”. This was in direct contravention of mechanisms built into the Apple web browser, which are meant to block this kind of tracking by default.

“The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies,” the internet giant told the Journal.

According to Reuters, Google could still face charges in Europe, where privacy laws are much stricter.

When the scandal broke, Google claimed that the Journal had misunderstood what the code was actually for:

Unlike other major browsers, Apple’s Safari browser blocks third-party cookies by default. However, Safari enables many web features for its users that rely on third parties and third-party cookies, such as “Like” buttons. Last year, we began using this functionality to enable features for signed-in Google users on Safari who had opted to see personalized ads and other content–such as the ability to “+1” things that interest them.

To enable these features, we created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google’s servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google, and had opted for this type of personalization. But we designed this so that the information passing between the user’s Safari browser and Google’s servers was anonymous–effectively creating a barrier between their personal information and the web content they browse.

However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser. We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers. It’s important to stress that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information. Users of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome were not affected. Nor were users of any browser (including Safari) who have opted out of our interest-based advertising program using Google’s Ads Preferences Manager.