Privacy violations could cost Google billions in fines

It’s been roughly a month since Google was caught circumventing privacy protections in order to track user behavior on its sites.

Regulators worldwide have been busy in that time collecting data of their own.

From a report in the Wall Street Journal (paid subscribers only) this morning:

Regulators in the U.S. and European Union are investigating Google Inc. for bypassing the privacy settings of millions of users of Apple Inc.’s Safari Web browser, according to people familiar with the investigations. Google stopped the practice last month after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal.


In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission is examining whether Google’s actions violated last year’s legal settlement with the government in which Google pledged not to "misrepresent" its privacy practices to consumers, according to people familiar with the investigation.

The fine for violating the agreement is $16,000 per violation, per day. Because millions of people were affected, any fine could add up quickly, depending on how it is calculated. The FTC declined to comment.

A group of state attorneys general, including New York’s Eric Schneiderman and Connecticut’s George Jepsen, are also investigating Google’s circumvention of Safari’s privacy settings, according to people familiar with the investigation. State attorneys general can have the ability to levy fines of up to $5,000 per violation.

In Europe, the French Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, or CNIL, has added the Safari circumvention technique to its existing pan-European investigation into Google’s privacy-policy changes, according to a person close to the investigation.

There are hundreds of millions of users of mobile Safari, which is the default browser on every iPhone and iPad. At $16,000 per user per day for a practice that has gone on for several years, the fines could be gargantuan. Expect Google to settle quickly.

7 thoughts on “Privacy violations could cost Google billions in fines

  1. I’ll see it when I believe it. One of the (many) unreported stories in Techland is about any efforts Google is making behind the scenes to head off regulatory action: Obama’s anti-trust cop in the Justice Dept. starts off promising aggressive action, then sees oversight shifted to the FTC, which is fairly toothless and has yet to take any significant steps; DOJ settles the pharma fraud case; privacy changes lead to… nothing, so far; EC indicates a 400-page complaint is coming, then doesn’t come. I find it hard to believe this is all just dumb luck.

  2. Google bypasses privacy protections of other browsers. With Chrome, Google has an opportunity to build-in the privacy holes of their choice.

  3. The article also pointed out that the likelihood of the government being able to prove that Google intentionally tried to circumvent Safari’s default privacy settings would be extremely difficult.

    Unless something definitive comes up during the investigation, I doubt Google will get anything more than a slap on the wrist.

  4. All of the reports I have seen today on this issue focus on Google’s attempt to bypass Apple’s restrictions on privacy in their browser.

    But, none have reported on Google’s parallel attempt to bypass Microsoft’s privacy restrictions in IE9. (Microsoft strictly followed WW3’s standards on the matter, and Google took advantage of a defect in the accepted, open standard, so that they can track people.)

  5. Speaking of IE9, don’t forget to turn on Tracking Protection. I use its personalized/automatic function, rather than third party lists. Among many other things, is currently listed as being blocked by Tracking Protection.

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