FTC urged to investigate Google over Safari cookies

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Three US lawmakers have written to the Federal Trade Commission querying whether Google's been violating a consent agreement that it reached with the FTC last year.

The move follows last week's revelations that the company had been bypassing privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser to install cookies, even where the browser was set to reject them.

And Republican representatives Cliff Stearns of Florida and Joe Barton of Texas, along with Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts, say this may contravene the terms of a sweeping privacy agreement that Google reached with the FTC last year.

The consent order required the company to introduce a full privacy program, and barred it from misrepresenting its privacy practices.

"This... comes as a major concern, especially just two weeks after Google announced that the company plans to make major changes to its privacy policies and terms of service that will allow sharing of osers' personal information across its many products," the letter reads.

"This new policy and the omission of a customer opt-out on a product-by-product basis already raised a number of privacy concerns."

The FTC's also had a letter about the issue from the Electronic Privacy Information Center - which suggests that Google knew exactly what it was doing. It highlights the fact that, once the issue blew up, Google pulled relevant information from its web pages.

"The original Google statement that users of Safari who have not changed their privacy settings 'accomplishes the same thing as setting the opt-out cookie' is a per se misrepresentation. Not only did the company know this not to be true, it took elaborate measures to circumvent the Safari privacy safeguards, and it benefited from the misrepresentations by the commercial value it surreptitiously obtained," says the letter.

"The fact that Google removed the evidence and made it no longer available by means of a Google search (think about that for a moment) is an admission by the company as to its malfeasance."

If the FTC does investigate, and finds Google guilty, it could be an expensive mistake. Not only could it mean fines of $16,000 per violation, per day, it could bring renewed scrutiny of the company's plans to consolidate user data across all its services.