Google is paying a $17 million settlement to 37 U.S. states to resolve allegations that the company violated consumer privacy by using tracking cookies to capture the searching habits of Apple Safari Web browser users from 2011 to 2012.
The settlement, which also includes an agreement with Washington, D.C., was announced by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman on Nov. 18.
"Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the Web with them," Schneiderman said in a statement. "By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust."
The case emerged when reports began sprouting in 2012 that Google had altered its Google DoubleClick advertising platform to circumvent default privacy settlings in Safari. Those default Safari privacy settings would have prevented cookies from collecting information on the searching habits of Safari users. By quietly changing those settings, Google was able to capture information about Safari users and their searches, which collected the ire of many users and attorneys general in many states across the nation.
"Google disabled this coding method in February 2012 after the practice was widely reported on the Internet and in the media," according to the statement.
In their case against Google, the attorneys general alleged that "Google's circumvention of Safari's default privacy settings for blocking third-party cookies violates state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws," which allowed the states to band together and seek changes from Google. The states alleged that "Google failed to inform Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings and that Google's earlier representation that third-party cookies were blocked for Safari users was misleading," according to the statement.
A Google spokesperson told eWEEK: "We work hard to get privacy right at Google and have taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple's browsers. We're pleased to have worked with the state attorneys general to reach this agreement."
In July 2012, Google reached a record $22.5 million settlement with the FTC to resolve federal charges related to the same issue, that Google bypassed Apple Safari browser privacy settings that blocked cookies for their users. The settlement was criticized by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry group, as "a dangerously overbroad precedent that will chill Internet innovation and hurt online startups," the Institute said in a statement at that time.
The FTC charged that for several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the computers of Safari users who visited sites within Google's DoubleClick advertising network. It charged that Google placed the cookies on consumers' computers in many cases by circumventing the Safari browser's default cookie-blocking setting.
Placing the cookies on the computers of Safari browsers violated the terms of an October 2011 settlement between Google and the FTC over deceptive practices related to the launch of Google Buzz, the late unlamented original attempt by Google to compete with Facebook in the social media space. Google later abandoned Buzz and went to work on its successor, Google +, which launched in June 2011.