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Google Settles 'Cookie' Privacy Suit with N.C., 36 States for $17M

WRAL TECH WIRE

Google on Monday reached a $17 million settlement with North Carolina and 36 other U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia over its circumvention of privacy settings for some Internet users.

Google will pay $17 million to the states and make changes to how it tracks consumers’ Internet surfing under a settlement announced today, Attorney General Roy Cooper said Monday.
The settlement involves Google;s use of "cookies" to track users' activity on some Safari web browsers between 2011 and 2012.

In a statement, Cooper said the suit and ensuing settlement were important to assure user privacy.

“People rely more and more on the Internet to communicate, find information, and do business, so it’s critical that companies be straight with consumers when it comes to online privacy,” Cooper said.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) overrode default settings for Apple's Safari browser that blocked cookies, small pieces of code that can allow companies to monitor consumer web surfing.

Google, owner of the world’s most popular search engine, allowed cookies to be set on consumers’ browsers through its DoubleClick advertising platform.

A privacy group based in California doesn't like the fact that Google was able to pay a settlement to resolve the issue.

“Google hacked around the privacy settings on Apple’s Safari web browser, set tracking cookies and lied about what it was doing. Now Google pays the states $17 million, doesn’t even apologize and claims it didn’t break the law,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “When these Google guys get caught with their fingers in the cookie jar, they just buy their way out of trouble.”

The group, which is based in California, noted that Google also paid a $22.5 million penalty to the Federal Trade Commission as part of the case for having violated an earlier consent agreement with the government.

“If Google cared a whit about your privacy, they would have apologized,” said Simpson. “They just view these penalties as a cost of doing business.”

Google halted that coding method in February 2012 after the practice was reported in the media. Google agreed to changes including no longer deploying that type of code unless necessary to address fraud, security or technical issues and improving the information it provides to consumers about its use of cookies, according to the attorney general’s office.

“Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. “By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust.”

Statements on Google’s website misled users of Apple’s Safari browser by suggesting that they did not need to install a special plugin to block cookies, the North Carolina attorney general’s office said.

“We work hard to get privacy right at Google and have taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers,” a Google spokeswoman, Nadja Blagojevic, said in a statement. “We’re pleased to have worked with the state attorneys general to reach this agreement.”

North Carolina will receive $427,854.86. The funds will be used for consumer protection purposes, Cooper's office said.

In the settlement, Cooper said Google agreed to:

  • Not use the type of code used here to override a browser’s cookie blocking settings without the consumer’s consent, unless necessary to address fraud, security or technical issues.
  • Not misrepresent or omit material information about how consumers can use any Google product, service, or tool to manage how Google serves advertisements to their Browsers.
  • Improve the information it provides to consumers regarding cookies, their purposes, and how they can be managed using Google’s tools.
  • Maintain systems designed to ensure that any third-party cookies set on Safari browsers while their default settings were circumvented have expired.

 

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