Google is about to be slapped with a fine by the Federal Trade Commission exceeding $10 million, Bloomberg reported late Friday.
“I can neither confirm nor deny the report,” an FTC spokesperson told TPM in a statement, in response to the Bloomberg article.
“We will of course cooperate with any officials who have questions,” a Google spokesperson said in a separate statement.
Google’s alleged trouble with the U.S. government this time actually goes back to February, when a cybersecurity researcher at Stanford University caught Google red-handed bypassing the default security settings on Apple’s Safari web browser, which is the main browser on all of Apple’s products, from Mac computers to Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student in law and computer science and a member of the law school’s Center for Internet and Society, discovered that Google and three other online advertisers were submitting an invisible form to users of Apple’s Safari browser. This invisible form tricked the browser into thinking the user had consented to the placement of third-party tracking cookies on their device.
Cookies are small files that many websites install on users’ Web browsers in order to store or “remember” an individual user’s preferences and settings for the next time they visit the page.
In this case, the cookies allowed Google and the other companies to track users across the Web and serve up personalized advertisements to users based on their Web browsing activity. Google at the time defended its actions by saying that the deception was necessary to allow Safari users to use Google’s “+1” buttons for its social network Google Plus.
Still, Google quickly stopped the practice after being confronted with a scathing Wall Street Journal article outlining its deception. Going a step further, Google adjusted its online documentation to remove passages claiming it could not place cookies on Safari users with the default privacy settings.
Following that report, the FTC and several European regulators reportedly began investigating Google in March for the Safari privacy evasion, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Google has tangoed with the FTC before, notably reaching a settlement in March of 2011 over consumer privacy violations. The settlement subjected Google to 20 years worth of biannual audits and banned it from “misrepresenting” privacy settings of its products going forward.
Google’s Safari is now accused of violating that settlement with its surreptitious Safari tracking, and the FTC clearly states that each violation of any one of its orders could incur a fine of $16,000 for each day that a violation took place. It’s unclear for how long Google was bypassing the Safari settings to plant advertising cookies.
Stanford’s Mayer, who has paid as much attention to the legal ramifications of his work as to the technical aspects, told TPM around the same time that he thought the FTC had a “slam dunk” case for proving that Google violated its settlement.
In a bitter bit of irony, that whole previous FTC investigation and settlement was over Google’s failed, 2010 attempt at social networking, Google Buzz, which was widely criticized for revealing the most emailed contacts of users’ of Google’s Gmail product.
If Google’s excuse for bypassing the Safari browser’s privacy settings are to be believed this time, in that it was promoting its social network, it would mark the second time in as many years that Google’s social networking efforts have gotten it into trouble with privacy watchdogs.