Google, Inc., agreed to pay a $22.5 million penalty for tracking the websites visited by users of Apple’s internet browser, Safari, in an agreement that protects it from lawsuits pertaining to the privacy violations.
“The record setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order,” Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said in a statement. “No matter how big or small, all companies must abide by FTC orders against them and keep their privacy promises to consumers, or they will end up paying many times what it would have cost to comply in the first place.”
According to the FTC, Google placed tracking “cookies” on Safari browsers that allowed the company to collect information about what websites an internet-user visited, which was used to target ads to Apple customers.
That practice violated an agreement with Safari users. “Google specifically told Safari users that because the Safari browser is set by default to block third-party cookies, as long as users do not change their browser settings, this setting ‘effectively accomplishes the same thing as [opting out of this particular Google advertising tracking cookie],’” the FTC said.
The penalty is a light sentence for Google in part because the agreement includes a denial that it violated FTC rules and a “denial of liability” that protects it from lawsuits related to the issue, one FTC commissioner protested. In the agreement, Google “denies any violation of the FTC Order, any and all liability for the claims set forth in the Complaint, and all material allegations of the Complaint save for those regarding jurisdiction and venue.”
“Condoning a denial of liability in these circumstances is unprecedented,” commissioner J. Thomas Rosch wrote to protest the agreement. “[I]t may be asserted that a denial of liability is justified by the prospect of a $22.5 million civil penalty. But $22.5 million represents a de minimis amount of Google’s profit or revenues.”
The other four commissioners rejected Rosch’s argument. “We strongly disagree with Commissioner Rosch’s view that if the Commission allows a defendant to deny the complaint’s substantive allegations, the settlement is not in the public
interest,” Leibowitz and three other commissioners wrote. “This is a settlement, and, in our view, the most important question is whether Google will abide by the underlying FTC consent order going forward. We firmly believe that the Commission’s swift imposition of a $22.5 million fine helps to promote such future compliance.”