Google's $22.5M Safari-Hack Settlement Nears Approval

by , Nov 16, 2012, 6:07 PM
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It looks like a federal judge will sign off on a deal requiring Google to pay $22.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges stemming from a hack that allowed the company to track Safari users.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston said today at a hearing in San Francisco that her "preliminary view" is to approve the deal, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

The settlement will resolve charges alleging that Google misled Safari users by tracking them, despite telling users that Safari automatically prevented tracking. Google allegedly bypassed Safari's settings so that users could like ads via the +1 button. But once the workaround was in place, Google's DoubleClick was able to track people in order to target ads to them.

While those allegations alone might not have spurred the FTC to bring charges, Google previously signed a consent decree banning it from misleading users about privacy. (That stemmed from another privacy debacle: When Google launched the defunct social network Buzz, the company turned users' email contacts into their social-networking contacts. But the feature also revealed information about the names of users' email contacts, if users activated Buzz without changing the defaults.)

In addition to the fine, Google promised that it will allow all tracking cookies that it set on Safari users to expire by next year as part of the settlement.

But not everyone thinks the deal is a good idea. The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog went to court in an attempt to block the settlement. That organization says that Google should have to admit liability in the case. The group also says that the fine -- somewhere around 1/1000th of Google's ad revenue -- was too low, and that the deal should include an injunction banning Google from deceiving users about privacy.

Finally, Consumer Watchdog says that Google needs to do more than let the cookies expire. Instead, the group wants Google to delete all data -- including IP addresses -- collected from Safari users.

Illston reportedly didn't think any of those objections were enough to scuttle the deal -- but the Mercury News says she seemed "interested" in the argument that Google should be forced to destroy all of the data it collected.

Even if Illston approves the deal, the company is still facing a potential class-action lawsuit by Safari users, as are three other companies that allegedly used the same hack -- Vibrant Media, WPP's Media Innovation Group and PointRoll.

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