FTC spanks Google for tracking users without their consent

The $22.5 million fine is the largest in FTC history, but its symbolic value is worth far more.

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So the mighty Google has agreed to bow to the Federal Trade Commission and fork over $22.5 million worth of greenbacks.

What did Google do to deserve this spanking? It willfully ignored the Do Not Track privacy settings built into Safari browsers by leaving advertising tracking cookies on users’ hard drives, while claiming to do the opposite on its Web site.

That little bit of doubletalk about Doubleclick was discovered by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer, who’s uncovered a number of privacy shenanigans by other firms as well. It was confirmed by researcher Ashkan Soltani, who was hired by the Wall Street Journal to suss out Mayer’s claims.

Essentially, Google fooled Safari into thinking that users were submitting a Web form, thus allowing third-party cookies to be deposited on their drives. If the user was logged in to Google, those cookies would be used to track them and deliver ads based on their Web activity – something Safari would normally block by default.

But let’s be clear about this: Google wasn’t sanctioned for violating users’ privacy. It was fined for saying one thing and doing another. The FTC has a broad mandate for shielding consumers against deceptive claims, but it has no authority to keep companies from acting like jerks. Had Google stated in some FAQ that it was deliberately bypassing Safari’s defaults to track users, the FTC would have little standing to take action.

The agency actually signaled its intent to fine Google a couple months ago; yesterday’s announcement signifies that Google said “Sure, we’ll pay that” instead of fighting. Why? Because in the grand scheme of things, $22.5 million is chump change to a company that pulled in nearly $38 billion last year. That works out to roughly five hours worth of income for the advertising behemoth.

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