Google, still defiant, owes $22.5m in FTC privacy settlement

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News Byte: FTC to Look Into Native Advertising
News Byte: FTC to Look Into Native Advertising

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced on August 9 the terms and details of a $22.5 million settlement with Google relating to tracking-cookie practices from the Google DoubleClick advertising network.

Heralded by a lawsuit and proposed settlement order in U.S. District Court, the FTC says the civil penalty is the largest single charge resulting from the violation of an established order—in this case, a settlement accord between the FTC and Google from October 2011 stemming from FTC privacy charges surrounding the now-defunct Google Buzz.

The FTC's complaint took Google to task for assuring Safari users that the browser's default privacy settings would provide an automatic opt-out of the DoubleClick tracking cookie. However, the FTC complaint alleges that for several months, the advertising network was in fact capable of placing its tracking cookie in the Safari browser with a small piece of HTML code that mimicked a Web form.

Since the October 2011 settlement order, the FTC has kept Google under closer scrutiny. The terms of that agreement also require Google to engage outside auditors to evaluate its privacy practices and protections.

For its part, Google admits no fault in agreeing to the settlement and maintains that it did not deliberately circumvent Safari user preferences.

Under condition of anonymity, a Google spokesperson responded, "The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page published more than two years before our consent decree, and a year before Apple changed its cookie-handling policy. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple's browsers."

In a press briefing, the FTC's David Vladeck, director of Bureau of Consumer Protection, and James Kohm, associate director for enforcement, explained that Google's "intent is immaterial. The important thing is the actions they took, which violated the [October 2011 settlement] order."

Google faces a deadline of February 15, 2014 to remove all cookies covered by this settlement. The FTC acknowledged that Google has taken proactive steps to remove most of the cookies already. The FTC did not provide information about how many people it believes were affected, but estimates Safari's installed base at 190 million users worldwide.

The case is United States of America (for the Federal Trade Commission) v. Google Inc., Case No. 5:12-cv-04177-HRL.

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