Coming at the absolute worst time for Google, The Wall Street Journal reports that the search giant has been tracking the Web-browsing habits of millions consumers without their consent.
According to WSJ: “Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.'s Web browser on their iPhones and computers -- tracking the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.”
“More accurately, Google’s been bypassing Safari’s default privacy settings that block certain types of cookies rather than overriding what people specifically set,” Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan clarifies. “But that still doesn’t make the revelation less of a body blow to Google’s reputation.”
The WSJ said three other online-ad firms had used similar code, including Vibrant Media, WPP's Media Innovation Group, and Gannett's PointRoll.
In a statement Google said: "The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known [Apple’s Web browser] Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."
As CNet notes, Vibrant told WSJ that the code is a "workaround" and doesn't collect personally identifiable data like names or financial-account numbers, while WPP declined to comment, and Gannett said the use of the code was part of a "limited test" to count how many Safari users went to an advertiser's site after seeing an ad.
“At the risk of being seen as an apologist for [a] culture of tracking,” VentureBeat suggests that WSJ “glosses over a lot of important details in its rush to judgement.”
What’s more, “It’d be nice if the Journal wasn’t so caught up in its own ‘privacy scoop’ that it paused to wonder if perhaps Apple has an agenda here as well,” writes John Battelle. “I’m not arguing Google doesn’t have an agenda -- it clearly does … I’m as saddened as the next guy about how Google has broken search in its relentless pursuit of beating Facebook, among others.”
Unfortunately for Google, this latest report follows a far-reaching legal settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in which the company pledged not to "misrepresent" its privacy practices to consumers.
“This is much more nuanced than a simple black and white argument,” agrees MG Siegler on his ParisLemon blog. That said, “At first glance, this [story] sounds really bad. I mean, really bad.”