The FTC is nearing completion of its investigation into allegations that Google used a special technique to circumvent the privacy settings on Safari to enable better tracking of users, even when tracking was disabled by the user. The decision may cost Google millions of dollars in fines, but it’s not clear whether that will serve as any kind of deterrent for a company that brings in tens of billions of dollars in revenue each year.
The FTC investigation stems from revelations in February that Google had used a special kind of code on some if its pages that would fool Apple’s Safari browser into thinking that the user was interacting with ad elements on a page. That interaction would override the privacy settings in the browser that told Safari that the user did not want to be tracked by cookies. The default in Safari is for users not to be tracked, which is a rarity in the browser world.
The finding that Google was allegedly circumventing this protection were based on research done by Jonathan Mayer of Stanford University, who looked at the way that Google and several ad companies were interacting with Safari.
“Apple’s Safari web browser is configured to block third-party cookies by default. We identified four advertising companies that unexpectedly place trackable cookies in Safari. Google and Vibrant Media intentionally circumvent Safari’s privacy feature. Media Innovation Group and PointRoll serve scripts that appear to be derived from circumvention example code,” Mayer wrote.
Google reportedly has been negotiating with the FTC about a settlement, and the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that the company is close to agreeing to a settlement that would include a $22.5 million fine. Google said that it stopped the tracking practice after the allegations surfaced in February.
Google has been a frequent target for privacy advocates and researchers who have criticized the company’s practices on data collection, tracking and user privacy. One of the bigger controversies arose earlier this year when Google announced that it would be consolidating its many privacy policies into one overarching set of policies for all of its properties. The move drew fierce criticism, but Google went ahead with it, saying that it would simplify things for the company and its users because having more than 70 separate privacy policies was sub-optimal.
“This approach is somewhat complicated. It’s also at odds with our efforts to integrate our different products more closely so that we can create a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google,” Alma Whiten of Google wrote in a blog post at the time.
The FTC has not commented on the potential settlement with Google.