Google has settled over allegations that it bypassed the privacy settings of users of Apple's Safari web browser, albeit admitting no liability in the case. US authorities described Google's response as "troubling."
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will receive $22.5 million (18.3 million euros) as a settlement from Google, though the payment spares the Californian company from admitting fault.
The FTC was probing allegations that Google had circumvented the default privacy settings on Apple's web browser Safari. This browser, particularly popular in the mobile market due to the iPhone cell phone and iPad tablet computer, automatically disables so-called "third-party cookies" - which allow third-party sites, often advertisers, to track a user's online footprint. Most of Safari's major web browser rivals do not automatically disable these, though users can switch them off.
"For several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the computers of Safari users who visited sites within Google's DoubleClick advertising network," the FTC said in a statement. "Google had previously told these users they would automatically be opted out of such tracking."
The practice was first disclosed in the US newspaper the Wall Street Journal in February after being discovered by a researcher at Stanford University. Google stopped the practice shortly after the report.
"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," FTC Chairman John Leibowitz said.
Settlement, no confession
The $22.5-million fine was the largest ever placed on a company by the FTC, but will hardly dent Google's revenues - the company posted second-quarter revenues of $12.21 billion.
Google has said that any tracking was inadvertent.
"It is troubling to us that Google says, 'we didn't know,'" David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said after the settlement Thursday. "A company like Google that is storing personal information from hundreds of millions of people has to do better. As regulators it is hard to know which answer is worse, 'I didn't know' or 'I did it deliberately.'"
Google said that the FTC focused particularly on one help center page published online in 2009, before Safari changed its default settings to disable third-party cookies.
Google is also subject to broader investigations by the FTC and by European regulators over accusations that it manipulated its search engine results to favor its own products.
msh/mz (AFP, Reuters)