Google fined US$22.5m by FTC for misrepresentation of users’ privacy controls

10 Aug 2012

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has handed down its largest ever civil penalty and Google has been ordered to pay US$22.5m to settle charges that it misrepresented privacy assurances to users of Apple’s Safari browser.

The heavy penalty is for breaching a privacy settlement Google reached in October 2011 with the FTC, wherein the search giant promised not to misrepresent users’ control over their privacy settings. However, it was found that instructions from Google’s Help Centre did not correctly inform users of how its cookies were implemented.

Google’s help pages said Safari users would not be tracked by its cookies or receive targeted ads based on information from their web use because of the browser’s ‘do not track’ settings, which block third-party cookies by default. But this was not the case for some months in 2011 and 2012, when temporary cookies installed via advertisements circumvented the Safari settings, enabling the advertising tracking cookie to be installed. This came from a workaround Google deployed in order to implement the +1 button across the web.

The FTC ruled that Google misled Safari users and issued the penalty, however, Google does not have to admit fault in the matter and claims the tracking was inadvertent and no personal information was collected.

Google’s information for Safari users has now been amended and the company is taking steps towards disabling the cookies.

FTC chair Jon Leibowitz, who believes this is a message to any company in violation of the FTC’s privacy orders, said, “No matter how big or small, all companies must abide by FTC orders against them and keep their privacy promises to consumers, or they will end up paying many times what it would have cost to comply in the first place.”

Cookies image via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.