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Google, Safari And The Wild Web At War

GOOD MORNING SILICON VALLEY BLOG (San Jose Mercury News)

The day after a Wall Street Journal report that Google and other ad networks bypassed settings on Apple‘s Safari Web browser — which doesn’t allow certain third-party cookies — reactions are mixed. While some tech bloggers are saying, basically, that the WSJ report is blowing this thing out of proportion, one persistent Google critic, the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, has reportedly already asked the FTC to investigate. And Microsoft, which is no friend of Google’s, has also weighed in and blasted its competitor. There’s no getting around it: This looks bad for Google, which lately seems to be putting out one PR fire after another.

The workaround, discovered by a Stanford researcher, allows Google and others to track the Web-browsing habits of Safari users. The WSJ said that Safari — the default browser on iPhones and iPads — is the most widely used browser on mobile devices.

Google, which was quoted in the article, says “the Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known 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.” The search giant says it employed the workaround to get its +1 ad buttons to work on Safari, and the WSJ reports that Google discontinued the practice after being contacted by the newspaper.

Longtime search-engine observer John Battelle questions Apple’s motives for blocking tracking by default with its Safari browser. Apple is often criticized for the closed, tightly controlled nature of its platform, and Battelle suggests the do-not-track default in Safari is not a privacy feature. “In short, Apple’s mobile version of Safari broke with common web practice, and as a result, it broke Google’s normal approach to engaging with consumers,” Battelle writes. However, here we should note that Apple added the do-not-track features to Safari last year after Microsoft did the same with Internet Explorer and Mozilla with Firefox — on the heels of a legislative push for do-not-track features on Web browsers.

Battelle’s larger point: The “sad state of the Internet” given the war between Google, Apple, Facebook and others has led to “shenanigans” including what Google has been caught doing, and we Internet users can probably expect more of the same. In fact, the WSJ report also says some Facebook apps use the same workaround code. Still, says Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, who is also pretty critical of the WSJ report, this latest revelation is “a body blow to Google’s reputation.”

One other key point in the WSJ report is that Google seems to have misrepresented what it was doing, because the Journal says instructions on a Google site on how to avoid tracking when using Safari was removed earlier this week.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based public-advocacy group, has written an open letter to Google: “Internet users worldwide have loved your products for years, and we’ve often praised your stance on free expression and transparency and your efforts to limit government access to users’ information. But when it comes to consumer choice around privacy, your commitment to users has been weaker.” The EFF then goes on to urge Google to commit to offering “do not track” on its Chrome browser. But one would have to be completely naive not to see why Google — which makes a huge bulk of its revenue from ads — isn’t exactly itching to get on this bandwagon.

This latest privacy brouhaha comes less than a month after Google took flak after announcing a new privacy policy. The company characterized the move as a consolidation of the policies of its many offerings under one umbrella; critics took it to mean that Google was turning its back on its famous “don’t be evil” mantra. (See Google’s latest controversial move: updating its privacy policy. What will it think of next?) The European Union recently asked that Google delay rolling out its new policy, which is scheduled to become effective March 1, while it investigates.