36 states and the District of Columbia recently entered into a $17 million dollar settlement and injunction regarding Google’s use of third-party tracking cookies on Safari web browsers. This settlement puts to bed the Attorneys General’s allegations that Google mislead consumers and violated state consumer protection and privacy laws by circumventing Safari’s default privacy settings.
Third party cookies are small files placed on a web browser, often by advertising networks, that track users as they visit websites and that gathers data on users’ browsing activities. Google is a search engine that owns an ad network, DoubleClick. Apple’s Safari web browser has a default privacy setting that blocks third-party cookies that track a consumer’s browsing history, including those used by DoubleClick.
Starting in June 2011 Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent Safari’s default cookie-blocking privacy settings without the users’ knowledge or consent. This practice ended in February 2012 after the discovery by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer that Google and three other online-advertising companies had circumvented Safari’s ad-blocker. In addition to tracking without consent, Google mislead Safari users by suggesting that they need not install a Google opt-out plugin to block third-party advertising cookies because Safari already blocks all third-party cookies by default.
Google’s settlement with the states follows Google’s $22.5 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission reached in August 2012 to settle the FTC’s allegation that Google violated an earlier FTC order by misrepresenting to Safari users that it would not place cookies on their browsers.