Record fine for Google over Safari tracking cookies

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Google's been hit with a whacking $22.5 million fine for violating a privacy settlement with the FTC and tracking the activity of Safari users.

Back in February, it was revealed that the company was placing tracking cookies on the computers of Safari users visiting sites within its DoubeClick advertising network - despite telling them that Safari's default settings meant it couldn't.

This, says the FTC, violated an October 2011 settlement relating to the company's Buzz social network in which Google was banned from misrepresenting the amount of control users have over privacy.

"The record setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order," says 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."

There was, though, one standout to the agreement. Commissioner J Thomas Rosch was unhappy because Google still isn't admitting liability.

"There is nothing to prevent future respondents with fewer resources than Google and with lower profiles than Google and Facebook from denying liability in the future too," he says.

Google's got until February 2014 to get rid of the offending cookies, as they can only be removed the next time each person visits a site included in the ad network.

"If you use Safari, you probably received a DoubleClick tracking cookie from Google during the relevant time period," says the FTC's chief technologist Ed Felten.

"As part of the settlement, Google agreed to destroy as many as possible of the DoubleClick tracking cookies placed on Safari users’ computers during the relevant period. To its credit, Google started destroying those cookies early, without waiting for the settlement to be finalized, so virtually all of the relevant cookies should be gone by now."