Google is about to settle with the Federal Trade Commission for $22.5 million for violating the privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser. Apple’s default setting prevented third-party sites from tracking users as they visited different sites, but Google (and several other, less reputable companies) exploited a loophole to do it anyway.
Google sets browser cookies – tiny files stored on the user’s computer – to remember a user as he or she travels around the Web and then uses the information it collects to personalize ads. By default, Safari only allows cookies to be set by the site you visit, so tracking the user across different sites is impossible.
But Google and the others used a trick to set third-party cookies through a primary cookie set by the current site. This was a clear violation of Apple’s intent when it created that setting. It also was definitely not a common practice in the industry, as Google wanted the public to believe.
Google initially claimed the loophole was exploited unintentionally but has since backed away from that position. It also quietly changed some Help Center documents that explicitly said that Google didn’t engage in this practice.
As The Wall Street Journal reports, that document was at the heart of the practices the FTC considered when levying this fine. “We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies,” a Google spokesperson told the Journal.
$22.5 million is only about four hours of revenue for Google, but it’s the largest fine ever levied on a single company by the FTC.