Google Inc. has agreed to pay a record $22.5 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly overriding privacy settings on Apple computer users' Safari browsers in order to track individuals' Web-surfing behavior.
The fine is both the first ever assessed by the FTC for an Internet privacy violation and the largest fine ever imposed by the FTC on a company, according to Bloomberg and Reuters.
The agreed civil penalty settles charges that Google misrepresented to users of Macs, iPhones and iPads that they did not have to take extra measures to block cookies when visiting websites within the DoubleClick advertising network, so long as appropriate privacy settings were in place on Safari. Meanwhile, Google allegedly circumvented the privacy settings for months in 2011 and 2012 to place cookies on the devices, explains the FTC in a Thursday press release announcing the fine and detailing its administrative case against Google.
The FTC says the claimed misrepresentations violated not only an earlier consent order with the agency concerning Google's privacy promises when it launched the Google Buzz social network but the code of conduct imposed on Google and other members of the Network Advertising Initiative industry group concerning disclosure of data collection and use practices.
“The record-setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order,” said Jon Leibowitz, the FTC's chairman, in the release. “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 has said that the cookies issue was the result of an inadvertent technical glitch that was corrected as soon as it was discovered, the Washington Post reported last month when news hit of a potential deal with the FTC.
However, a representative of an advocacy group that complained about Google's role in the alleged tracking scoffed. “When they get caught with their fingers in the cookie jar doing something they clearly should not be doing, they say, ‘Oops, it was completely by accident,’â€Š” John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog told the newspaper.