Judge Approves Record $22.5M FTC Fine Penalizing Google For Tracking Safari Users

18 November 2012, 1:01 pm EST By Alexandra Burlacu Mobile & Apps

A U.S. federal judge has approved a $22.5 million Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fine to penalize Google for an alleged privacy breach.

The approval from U.S. District Judge Susan Illston came late Friday, Nov. 16, rejecting a consumer-rights group's plea for a tougher punishment. Illston issued her ruling just a few hours after a hearing in San Francisco, which focused on a fine representing the agreement Google reached months ago with the FTC.

The privacy case revolves around allegations that the search giant fooled millions of Web surfers using Apple's Safari web browser into believing their online activities could not be tracked by Google provided they did not change the browser's privacy settings. Although that assurance was even posted on Google's Web site earlier this year, Google was inserting computer coding designed to bypass Safari's automatic settings. The coding enabled Google to peer into the online activities of Safari users, regardless of their browser settings.

According to the FTC, the stark contradiction between Google's stealth tracking and its false privacy assurances to Safari users broke a vow the company had made in another settlement with the FTC last year. Google had pledged not to mislead people regarding its privacy practices.

The FTC praised its actions as proof of its efforts to protect the public interest. A consumer rights group, however, attacked the settlement arguing that in fact it represents ineffectual regulation. As the FTC is wrapping up a separate investigation into complaints that Google has been hurting competition and raising online ad prices by emphasizing its own services in its leading search engine, the consumer rights group is trying to raise more awareness about the Google - Safari Web browser issue.

Judge Illston, meanwhile, found that the fine, as well as other facets of the settlement, were all "fair, adequate and reasonable."

"We're glad the court agreed there was no merit to this challenge," the search giant said in a statement following the ruling, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Consumer Watchdog, however, is not ready to let things go just yet. Gary Reback, an attorney for the consumer rights group, said he is hoping to pressure the FCT to take Google to court in the antitrust investigation rather than negotiating new consent decrees and reaching other types of settlements, as it did in dealing with the Safari privacy issue.

A consent decree "is not a good way to police Google," Reback told MercuryNews in an interview on Friday, after the court hearing. Some of the Internet companies that have filed complaints against the search giant in the antitrust case have also hired Reback as their attorney.

According to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, regulators should decide whether to sue, settle, or simply close the antitrust probe into Google's practices by the end of the year.  

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