The Federal Trade Commission is close to finalizing a deal with Google that calls for it to pay $22.5 million to settle charges that it circumvented Apple users' privacy settings, The Wall Street Journalreports.
The enforcement action and record-breaking fine grow out of a report by Stanford grad student Jonathan Mayer outlining how Google, PointRoll, the WPP's Media Innovation Group and Vibrant Media circumvented the Safari browser's no-tracking settings.
Google, Vibrant Media and PointRoll confirmed Mayer's report, and said they had stopped tracking Safari users or would soon do so. WPP hasn't yet commented.
Google also said it developed its workaround in order to enable Safari users to like ads with the +1 button, and not track them throughout the Web. But once the workaround was in place, Google's DoubleClick also was able to track people for advertising purposes.
It's debatable whether using the workaround in itself constitutes an unfair or deceptive practice. But Google specifically instructed users that the Safari browser would block tracking cookies. With that statement, the search giant allegedly violated a 2011 consent decree prohibiting the company from misrepresenting its privacy practices. That order resulted from Google's disastrous launch of the defunct social networking service Buzz, which aimed to create networks out of people's email contacts; at launch, Buzz revealed some names of users' email contacts by default.
The other companies to circumvent Safari's settings weren't under an FTC consent decree at the time, which means the FTC can only bring cases against those companies if they did something deceptive or harmed users by an unfair practice.
But even if the FTC decides not to target Vibrant Media, PointRoll or WPP, those companies nonetheless are dealing with legal problems as a result of the Safari hack. All of them, as well as Google, are now facing potential class-action lawsuits by consumers who were unhappy to learn they were being tracked.