The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

US judge poised to approve $22.5 million fine of Google to settle Safari privacy flap

  • Print

SAN FRANCISCO - A proposed $22.5 million fine to penalize Google for an alleged privacy breach is on the verge of winning court approval, despite a consumer rights group's cry for tougher punishment.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston told lawyers during a Friday court hearing in San Francisco that she is likely to approve the fine, which is the cornerstone of a settlement reached three months ago between the Federal Trade Commission and Google Inc.

The rebuke is meant to resolve allegations that Google duped millions of Web surfers who use the Safari browser into believing their online activities couldn't be tracked by the company as long as they didn't change the browser's privacy settings. That assurance was posted on Google's website earlier this year, even as the Internet search leader was inserting computer coding that bypassed Safari's automatic settings and enabled the company to peer into the online lives of the browser's users.

The FTC concluded that the contradiction between Google's stealth tracking and its privacy assurances to Safari users violated a vow the company made in another settlement with the agency last year. Google had promised not to mislead people about its privacy practices.

While FTC hailed its actions as proof of its resolve to protect the public interest, a consumer rights group attacked the settlement as an example of ineffectual regulation. The group, Consumer Watchdog, is trying to bring more attention to the issue as the FTC wraps up a separate investigation into complaints that Google has been stifling competition and raising online ad prices by highlight its own services in its influential search engine.

Consumer Watchdog attorney Gary Reback is hoping to pressure the FTC to take Google to court in the antitrust investigation instead of negotiating a settlement known as a consent decree, as it did in the Safari privacy flap.

A consent decree "is not a good way to police Google," Reback said in an interview after Friday's court hearing. Reback also is representing some of the Internet companies that have filed complaints against Google in the antitrust case.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz has said he expects regulators to decide whether to sue, settle or simply close the antitrust investigation by the end of this year.

In the Safari case, Consumer Watchdog argued the fine amounts to loose change for a company like Google, which generates about $22.5 million in revenue every four hours. In legal briefs, Reback asserted that Google should be fined at least $3 billion because of the number of people potentially affected. The FTC estimates about 190 million people use Safari to browse the Web on computers, smartphones and tablets made by Google's rival Apple Inc. But the agency said the impact of Google's breach was relatively small, estimating the company picked up about $4 million in revenue from the intrusion.

The FTC considers the fine to be a milestone because it's the largest the agency has ever levied for a civil violation. The FTC estimates Google generated no more than $4 million in revenue from its alleged misconduct.

Consumer Watchdog also contended the settlement lacked teeth because it allowed Google to deny any liability for its conduct. That echoed a concern of FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch, who voted against the Google settlement. Leibowitz and three other FTC commissioners voted for the settlement anyway because they believe it will deter similar breaches in the future.

Google insists it didn't intentionally bypass Safari's default settings.

Finally, Consumer Watchdog blasted the settlement for allowing Google to retain the data that it got from Safari users without authorization.

Illston brushed off the objections about the magnitude of the fine and Google's denial of liability. She did probe deeper into Google's retention of the Safari browser data, raising the possibility that she could require revisions to that portion of the settlement. Illston didn't say when she intended to issue a ruling.

Analyzing Web surfing data helps Google gain a better understanding of people's preferences so it can customize online ads to appeal to different tastes.

But Google lawyer David Kramer told Illston that the data vacuumed from the unauthorized snooping on Safari browsers would be too stale to be of practical use to the company. He also maintained that much of the data transmitted to Google would have been sent even without the secret insertion of additional computer coding.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Public finally sees inside the Museum for Human Rights

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A squirrel enjoys the morning sunshine next to the duck pond in Assiniboine Park Wednesday– June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A black swallowtail butterfly land on Lantana flowers Sunday morning at the Assiniboine Park English Gardens- standup photo – August 14, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you support Canada's involvement in the fight against Islamic State?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google