FTC hits Google with $22.5 million fine over Safari hacks

Judge in Court

The Federal Trade Commission today confirmed that it has imposed a record-breaking fine on Google over the search giant’s decision to circumvent privacy settings on the Apple’s Safari browser.

Google will pay a $22.5 million penalty as punishment for breaking the terms of a 20-year privacy settlement that the FTC had slapped on the company last year. Under that settlement, Google had to pledge it would not “misrepresent” the degree over which users had control of their privacy settings.

The FTC found Google had committed such a misrepresentation when it placed tools known as “cookies” to collect advertising information from users even though the company had suggested Apple’s browser settings would prevent this from occurring. In the words of the FTC:

for several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the computers of Safari users who visited sites within Google’s DoubleClick advertising network, although Google had previously told these users they would automatically be opted out of such tracking, as a result of the default settings of the Safari browser used in Macs, iPhones and iPads.

News of the fine was leaked to the Wall Street Journal in June and today’s announcement makes it official. As is customary in these type of cases, Google does not admit liability under the terms of its penalty agreement with the FTC.

Both Google and Facebook are under 20-year privacy agreements with the FTC. Privacy issues have become a hot issue as regulators try to find the right balance between safe-guarding consumers’ privacies while also ensuring they don’t stifle innovation in the tech sector.

“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.”

Read the full announcement here.

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