FTC Fines Google $22.5 Million for Feeding Tracking Cookies to Safari Users

Paul Lilly

Google has agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle charges with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging the sultan of search placed tracking cookies on computers running Apple's Safari browser that effectively bypassed the browser's built-in privacy measures. It's the largest fine ever handed out by the FTC, and one the government organization hopes will serve as a deterrent to other companies who might look to profit at the expense of privacy.

"The record setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order," said Jon Leibowitz , Chairman of the FTC. "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."

Google rakes in billions of dollars in revenue each year from serving up targeted ads to Web users by using cookies. According to the FTC, Google told Apple Safari users they would be automatically opted out of tracking activities, but then proceeded to use cookies that sidestepped the browser's default privacy settings and displayed ads from its DoubleClick advertising network.

"Google exploited an exception to the browser’s default setting to place a temporary cookie from the DoubleClick domain. Because of the particular operation of the Safari browser, that initial temporary cookie opened the door to all cookies from the DoubleClick domain, including the Google advertising tracking cookie that Google had represented would be blocked from Safari browsers," the FTC said in a statement.

The FTC's ruling is a definite win for privacy advocates and Safari users in particular, though the fine hardly amounts to a slap on the wrist. Google last year recorded $37.9 billion in revenue, and almost all of that was generated from advertising.

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