22.5 Million Suggest Google Could Be New “Teflon Don”

google mafia Mega search engine “Google” is set to a pay the largest civil penalty ever secured by the FTC for a violation of one of their orders. The $22.5 million fine involves Google’s tracking of users who accessed the Web through Apple’s Safari browser but many claim that the FTC shouldn’t have let Google off so easily as they’ll admit no wrongdoing in the case; so long as they pay the money – essentially allowing the firm to buy its way out of trouble  – despite violating a previous agreement signed last year. In October 2011, an FTC settlement with Google “bared the company from future privacy misrepresentations,” and required Google to implement a comprehensive privacy program.

While this fine is gargantuan in size, it’s a mere slap on the wrist for the search engine giant whom will pay this debt with revenues generated from a single day of profits (Google generates roughly $133,333,333.00 per day of which about 25% is classified as net income).

In addition to paying their ransom of $22.5 million, Google will have to disable tracking cookies – those of which caused their problems in the first place. The allegation suggests that Google placed cookies on the computers of Safari users for several months between 2011 and 2012 without their knowledge. Cookies were served from publishers of Google’s DoubleClick Ad Network which Google had originally claimed were exempt from tracking ability by default settings in Safari’s browser which blocks these cookies on iPhones and iPads as well as most Apple Macintosh platforms. Apparently, Google had “knowingly circumvented” the cookie-blocking technology so that it could track these users anyway but kept a lid on their success in doing so.

Google is also a member of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a group which mandates that member companies provide users a means to opt out of online behavioral advertising, and respect it. Google breached this policy as it had agreed to set self-regulatory principles. The Center for Democracy and Technology applauded the FTC for moving quickly with their ruling, although not everyone’s happy. Users of Google Android devices feel the ruling does nothing to change Google’s ability to monitor behavior on their chosen platform. While iOS devices are protected under the ruling, the privacy policy for many Android devices allows Google to collect limitless amounts of data about individual users. Unlike the Safari tracking debacle, Google doesn’t have to worry about a breach of contract when tracking Android users because it’s their platform and users opt-in to use it.

In a statement released by the FTC, Jon Leibowitz, the agencies active Chairman said “The record setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order. 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.”.

Perhaps the strangest part is Apple’s treatment of their flagship web browser. Information about the Microsoft Windows port of Safari 5.1.7 wasn’t readily available on Apple’s website. The download links have more or less been moved to support pages. The actual Apple Safari product page doesn’t mention that a version of the software is even available for the Windows PC platform. Then again, the browser is not widely used with only around seven percent (7%) of users who are actually surfing the web through the program [*Usage share of desktop browsers for July 2012].

While Apple might rule mobile and tablet, they still have a ways to go in the desktop market. Although users of Apple are still relatively partial to Safari, this means little considering it’s a default program with users clinging to it simply because they don’t want to install additional software or are not even aware of the fact that alternatives are available.

At the end of the day, the FTP affirmed that it felt the $22.5 million fine is an appropriate remedy for the charge that Google misrepresented to Safari users how to avoid targeted advertising by Google.  This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California in San Jose on August 8, 2012 and is subject to court approval.


 

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