Connecticut is slated to receive more than a half million dollars as part of a national settlement between Google and 37 states and the District of Columbia over allegations the company was snooping on people using an Apple browser.
In total, Google Inc. will pay the states $17 million. The Connecticut Attorney General’s Office was part of an executive committee that negotiated the settlment.
Web surfers can use of the Google search engine is free, so the company generates revenue primarily from advertising. Through its DoubleClick advertising platform, Google sets third-party cookies — small files set in consumers’ web browsers — that enable it to gather information about those consumers. Depending on the type of cookie, this information could include consumers’ web-surfing habits.
Apple’s Safari web browser is set by default to block third-party cookies, including cookies set by DoubleClick to track a consumer’s browsing history. However, from June 1, 2011 until February 15, 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent those default privacy settings on Safari, without consumers’ knowledge or consent, enabling it to put DoubleClick cookies on consumers’ Safari web browsers. Google disabled this coding method in February 2012 after the practice was uncovered by a graduate student at Stanford University and then widely reported on the Internet and in the media.
“Google represented that consumers could avoid third-party cookies being placed in their Safari Web browsers simply by relying on the browser’s default settings,” Attorney General George Jepsen said in a statement. “This settlement resolves allegations that, while giving these very assurances, Google was actually bypassing those same privacy settings and placing advertisers’ cookies on consumers’ Safari browsers, without their knowledge or consent.”
The state attorneys general allege that Google’s alleged deception violated various state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws. The states claim that Google failed to inform Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings and that Google’s earlier representation that third-party cookies were blocked for Safari users was misleading.
As part of the settlement, Google did not admit any wrongdoing. Google has maintained the Safari intrusion was an inadvertent side effect of an attempt to make it easier for people to recommend ads. “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,” Google said in a statement. “We’re pleased to have worked with the state attorneys general to reach this agreement.”
Connecticut will receive $535,312 as part of the national settlement.
There is injunctive relief as well. Google is prohibited from overriding a browser’s cookie blocking settings without the consumer’s consent unless it is necessary to do so in order to detect, prevent or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues. Further, the company must refrain from making any misleading statements about its online tracking practices.
To that end, Google must improve the information it gives consumers regarding cookies, their purpose, and how the cookies are managed by consumers using Google’s products or services and tools. This will be done for the next five years on a special web page.
“Consumers deserve to know when their Internet activity is being used by others and should be able to take steps to prevent it,” Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein said in a statement. “We will not countenance deception that undermines the ability of consumers to choose for themselves the information they would like to share.”
This is the second time that authorities in the U.S. have sanctioned Google for its secret shadowing of Safari users from June 2011 through mid-February of last year. The Federal Trade Commission fined Google $22.5 million last year. That represented the largest penalty that the FTC had ever collected for a civil violation.
The settlement won’t put much of a dent in Google’s finances. After stripping out the company’s advertising commissions, Google’s revenue this year is expected to be about $47 billion, according to some analysts. According to that estimate, it would take Google slightly more than three hours to generate $17 million in revenue on an average day.
In Connecticut, Assistant Attorney General Michele Lucan, a member of the Attorney General’s Privacy Task Force, and Assistant Attorney General Matthew Fitzsimmons, head of the task force, assisted Jepsen with this matter.