November 22, 2013
Forgoing Permission, Google Asks for Forgiveness (Not Really)
On Monday, Google agreed to a settlement with 37 states and the District of Columbia over privacy violations worth $17 million. The dispute was regarding Google’s circumvention of a part of Apple’s Safari browser that allowed the search giant to track users’ Internet activity in an effort to show them targeted advertisements in 2011 and 2012.
“Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them,” New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, said in a statement. “By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust.”
While Google did not admit fault, it did agree to discontinue using the code that circumvents Safari’s privacy controls.
“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 an official statement. “We’re pleased to have worked with the state attorneys general to reach this agreement.”
The $17-million settlement is a fraction of the billions the search giant rakes in annually, essentially a slap on the wrist. It’s also a sign to internet companies that settlements for breaching privacy are essentially a cost of doing business.
The states did go further than the Federal Trade Commission, which won a $22 million settlement from Google in 2012, in pursuing Google’s circumvention of Safari. The FTC’s argument was that because Google had told Safari users their browser’s privacy feature would work – the company essentially made “misrepresentations” regarding users’ privacy. More notably, the feds stopped short of alleging criminal activity.
The states involved in Monday’s settlement, on the other hand, took a more aggressive approach, framing the issue as a deceptive business practice.
“If you’re actively hacking around the privacy settings,” John Simpson, the privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog told the Washington Post, “there still is a good likelihood there’s a state law being violated.”
The states made the case that Google had broken state consumer protection laws, computer privacy laws and agreement arguments put forth by the FTC. The settlement could foreshadow criminal charges from states’ attorneys.
However, “hacking” around another company’s browser is a completely different issue from, say, the misuse of personal information on Google+ or selling internet traffic data collected through Chrome to the highest bidder. If anything, these settlements should remind us that Google, and other internet companies like it, are more willing to ask for forgiveness than for permission when it comes to privacy on the internet.
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