Google Facing Investigation Over Safari Privacy Issue: Report

Google is facing investigation by U.S. and European Union regulators over the use of advertising cookies in Apple's Safari browser.

Google is under investigation by regulators in both the United States and European Union, according to sources speaking to The Wall Street Journal March 16.

Specifically, those regulators are investigating how Google sidestepped privacy settings of the Safari Web browser. €œIt€™s important to remember that we didn€™t anticipate this would happen,€ a Google spokesperson told the Journal, €œand we have been removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers.€ Investigating bodies apparently include the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the French Commission Nationale de l€™informatique et des Libertes (CNIL), each of which have the power to level fines and other penalties against companies.

The public-interest group Consumer Watchdog applauded the potential investigation in a March 16 statement. "Google has more information about Internet users than any company in the world, and uses that information to develop detailed profiles and market consumers to advertisers," Carmen Balber, the organization's Washington, D.C., director, wrote in that statement. "The Internet giant should not get away with lying to people about how to prevent their private information from ending up in Google's massive databases."

Google caught significant flak earlier this year after reports that it had figured out a way to trick Apple€™s Safari Web browser into allowing tracking via advertising cookies; Google claimed the tracking was inadvertent and that the ad cookies did not collect personal information. It disabled the code in question Feb. 16, following a report on the matter in the Journal.

Microsoft also claimed that Google had bypassed the privacy preferences of Internet Explorer users. €œWe€™ve found that Google bypasses the P3P Privacy Protection feature in IE,€ Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president of Internet Explorer, wrote in a Feb. 20 posting on the corporate Internet Explorer Blog. €œThe result is similar to the recent reports of Google€™s circumvention of privacy protections in Apple€™s Safari Web browser, even though the actual bypass mechanism Google uses is different.€

Google pushed back against Microsoft€™s claim, telling CNN in an emailed statement that the P3P feature is €œimpractical€ to service €œwhile providing modern Web functionality.€

Google also attracted criticism for some of its recent privacy policies. On March 1, the company condensed its privacy policies for some 60 products into one master policy, and allowed its Web services to share user data with each other. While Google was open about the policy shift, it nonetheless attracted criticism from privacy advocates and government officials.

In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, some 83 percent of respondents indicated that they used Google€™s search engine. At the same time, however, around 73 percent of Internet users indicated they didn€™t want those search engines keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future results. Another 68 percent didn€™t want targeted advertising because the prospect of having their online behavior tracked and analyzed made them uncomfortable.

Between that and the possibility of increased scrutiny by regulators, Google could be facing some hard times ahead.

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