Vt. to share in Google settlement over privacy breach
The Associated Press | November 20,2013
MONTPELIER — Vermont is set to receive $467,000 out of a $17 million payment by Google Inc. to 37 states and the District of Columbia to make amends for snooping on millions of people using Safari Web browsers.
The settlement announced Monday stems from Google’s shadowing of unwitting Safari users online, even though the browser’s maker, Apple Inc., prohibited the tracking without obtaining a person’s permission.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said Safari blocks so-called third-party cookies — files placed on computers by advertisers — by default but that Google altered settings to get around that block.
The attorneys general alleged that Google violated state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws by failing to tell Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings.
By following what users were doing online, Google’s DoubleClick advertising network could gain more insights about what types of ads were most likely to appeal to them.
This is the second time that authorities in the U.S. have cracked down on Google for its secret shadowing of Safari users from June 2011 through mid-February of last year. The Federal Trade Commission fined Google $22.5 million last year. It represented the largest penalty the FTC had ever collected for a civil violation.
Google has maintained the Safari intrusion was an inadvertent side effect of an attempt to make it easier for people to recommend ads.
The Mountain View, Calif., company disabled the surveillance coding, or cookies, in February 2012 after the violation of Safari’s privacy policies was initially reported. Until the problem was uncovered by a graduate student at Stanford University, Google had assured Safari users that they wouldn’t be monitored, as long as they didn’t change the browser settings to permit the tracking.
“Misrepresenting that tracking will not occur, when that is not the case, is unacceptable, as this settlement emphasizes,” said Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.
Google isn’t acknowledging any wrongdoing in the settlement. That’s the same position that Google took when it paid the FTC fine last year.
“We work hard to get privacy right at Google and have taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers,” the company said in a statement Monday. “We’re pleased to have worked with the state attorneys general to reach this agreement.”
The rebuke from the states is primarily a public relations blow to Google, whose privacy controls have suffered other lapses in recent years. In perhaps the most glaring privacy breach, a Google engineer installed a program that enabled company cars taking pictures of street scenes to scoop up personal data being transmitted over unprotected Wi-Fi networks.
The company also exposed the contact lists of Gmail users in 2010 when it launched a now-defunct social networking service called Buzz.
The settlement won’t put much of a dent in Google’s finances. After stripping out the company’s advertising commissions, Google’s revenue this year is expected to be about $47 billion, according to analysts surveyed by FactSet. According to that estimate, it would take Google slightly more than three hours to generate $17 million in revenue on an average day.
Besides paying the fine, Google is agreeing to maintain a special page devoted to cookies for the next five years and refrain from making any misleading statements about its online tracking practices.