Google and the Federal Trade Commission are reportedly close to a settlement regarding charges Google circumvented privacy settings in the Apple Safari Web browser.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Google may be forced to pay $22.5 million to settle the charges. The amount would be the largest fine ever levied by the FTC, according to the report.
The FTC did not respond to an eWEEK request for comment. However, the Journal report cited anonymous sources briefed on the settlement terms as saying a deal was closethough the sources also noted it may be changed by FTC commissioners before it is completed.
At the heart of the issue was a discovery in February that Google used special code to bypass Safari privacy settings. By default, Safari would block tracking via cookies. However, the code tricked the browser into accepting cookies. Google disabled the code soon after reports of the issue surfaced. Google said at the time that the situation was unintentional and that the ad cookies did not collect personal information. The company also changed a page in its help center that provided inaccurate information to Safari users about cookies.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson told eWEEK that the company would not comment on the specifics of the situation.
"However we do set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users," the spokesperson said. "The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page published more than two years before our consent decree, and a year before Apple changed its cookie-handling policy. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apples browsers."
The fine is the latest entry in a long list of privacy battles between Google and government regulators. Last year, Google settled with FTC regarding privacy complaints about its Google Buzz social network. As part of that settlement, Google agreed to adopt a privacy program and submit to an independent privacy audit every other year for the next two decades.
In April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Google $25,000 after finding the company "deliberately impeded and delayed" an investigation into how it collected data for Google StreetView. After the FCC fine, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) penned a letter to the U.S. Attorney Generals Offfice requesting an investigation into Google to determine if any laws had been broken.
News of the most recent settlement details with the FTC was greeted by some privacy advocates with joy, while others have had a more critical reaction.
"Its always good to see the FTC involved in privacy enforcement," blogged Daniel Castro, a senior analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), who criticized the size of the fine. "Regulatory oversight is an important means of keeping all companies honest and on top of their policies and practices. But companies will inevitably make mistakes. ¦ This proposed settlement may discourage companies from fully disclosing details about their data handling practices in the future."