Google (NSDQ: GOOG) continues to find itself in compromising positions in 2012: the latest comes after an investigation by The Wall Street Journal which found that the company was tricking Apple’s Safari browsers on the iPhone and the Mac into dropping their ad-tracking protections in order to promote Google+.
The report shows that Google inserted code into display ads shown by its DoubleClick subsidiary that got around the default setting in Safari that prevents cookies–the basic building block of web advertising–from being installed on computers and letting ad companies track your movements across the Internet in order to show you ads they believe are relevant to your interests. Safari makes an exception for websites that ask you to submit a form, allowing them to install cookies. Google simply added code to certain ads that mimicked a form submission in order to determine whether Safari browsers were also logged into Google+ so that those users could “+1” ads and share them with their Google+ contacts.
Google acknowledged using the code (which Facebook actually considers a “best practice” for its developers, according to the WSJ) and has stopped using it, but claims it did nothing wrong. “The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why,” Google said in a statement accompanying the report. “We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It’s important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.”
So what really happened here? Once again, you, the user, are a pawn in the fight for data among giant computer companies.
Google (and a large part of the web advertising economy, points out Federated Media’s John Batelle) depends on these types of cookies to sell relevant display advertising, allowing it and other web publishers to provide many services for free. Safari ships with cookie-blocking technology enabled by default, which Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) believes is a privacy protection but is not necessarily something that iPhone users have agreed is in their best interest. And since it is a default setting, it’s safe to assume a fair proportion of iPhone users never even checked those settings.
But bypassing those privacy controls–willingly enabled or not–is a sneaky move that again shows how willing Google is to compromise some of its core principles in order to get Google+ off the ground. Is there really a huge percentage of Safari users who are desperate to “+1” web advertising in order to share those ads with their friends but just can’t figure out why that function isn’t available? I find that hard to believe.
For Apple’s part, it can contend that the Safari settings offer greater protection to its users, but as Batelle also points out, it reinforces the notion that Apple users belong to Apple and no one else. If traditional web advertising methods are not an effective way of reaching iOS users, then those advertisers might just have to go to Apple and its iAd in-app advertising system to promote their interests. And denying Google that data makes Google a less effective advertising machine, slowing its growth and its ability to invest in other mobile products, like Android, that threaten Apple.
But you have to wonder exactly what was slipped into the water in Mountain View over the 2011 holiday break, with Google how having managed to shoot itself in the foot multiple times during 2012 with clumsy and ill-advised attempts to promote its services.