Santa Monica, CA – Consumer Watchdog welcomed reports today confirming that the Federal Trade Commission and European regulators are investigating Google for violating the online privacy choices of consumers using the Safari web browser on Apple computers, iPhones and iPads. In a letter last month, Consumer Watchdog said that Google was lying to consumers and called on the FTC to act.
“Google engineers are playing fast and loose with the public’s private information, and FTC action is critical to make them understand that if they don’t respect Google’s promises to the public there will be consequences,” said Carmen Balber, Consumer Watchdog’s Washington D.C. director. “Google has more information about internet users than any company in the world, and uses that information to develop detailed profiles and market consumers to advertisers. The internet giant should not get away with lying to people about how to prevent their private information from ending up in Google’s massive databases.”
A study by Jonathan Mayer of Stanford University’s Security Lab, and the Center for Internet and Society, found that Google has been circumventing a privacy setting in Apple’s Safari web browser. Like most web browsers, Safari provides the option not to receive third-party “cookies.” Cookies are small bits of code placed on the browser and can be used by ad networks to track you as you surf the web. Blocking third-party cookies is supposed to prevent such tracking. Safari is the primary browser on the iPhone and iPad.
In the letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director, John M. Simpson wrote:
“The Stanford study found that Google’s DoubleClick ad network was sending out software invisible to the user that circumvented the Safari setting and allowed a tracking cookie to be set. The study results were first reported in the Wall Street Journal.
“Safari users with the browser set to block third-party cookies, thought they were not being tracked. Nonetheless, because of an element invisible to the user, but designed to mimic a form, DoubleClick was able to set tracking cookies in an obvious violation of the set preference.”
“Making Google’s actions even more outrageous is false advice it gave to Safari users in describing how to permanently opt out of receiving Google’s targeted advertising.”
Google has developed a so-called browser “plugin” for Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome that makes the opt-out persistent. Google has not developed a plugin for Safari. The false advice Google gave Safari users follows:
“While we don’t yet have a Safari version of the Google advertising cookie opt-out plugin, Safari is set by default to block all third-party cookies. If you have not changed those settings, this option effectively accomplishes the same thing as setting the opt-out cookie.”
Google then explained how to verify the setting.
“But the advice was false. Google was lying,” wrote Simpson. “It was in fact circumventing the privacy choice and setting DoubleClick tracking cookies.”
Clearly Google knows that it was in the wrong, Consumer Watchdog said. After the company was confronted about the Stanford research, it changed its advice page, removing the specific references to Safari.
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