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Federal lawmakers question if Google violated FTC agreement

February 17, 2012|By David Sarno
  • Google Inc. has come under fire for the way it tracks users on Apple's Safari Web browser, which operates on iPhones (above), iPads and Macs.
Google Inc. has come under fire for the way it tracks users on Apple's… (iPhone screenshot )

In the wake of evidence that Google Inc. circumvented privacy protections on the iPhone, federal lawmakers are asking if the company violated the terms of its broad privacy settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC settlement, finalized in October,"bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations," and required Google to implement a comprehensive privacy program.

But Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Cliff Sterns (R-Fla.) are asking if Google's apparent end run around software on Apple Inc.'s Web browser that blocks tracking would constitute a violation of Google's agreement with the FTC. 

"Google’s practices could have a wide sweeping impact because Safari is a major web browser used by millions of Americans," the lawmakers wrote to the FTC. "As members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we are interested in any actions the FTC has taken or plans to take to investigate whether Google has violated the terms of its consent agreement."

A study from a privacy researcher at Stanford University said Google and several other advertisers "intentionally circumvent" a privacy feature in Apple's Safari browser, the default Web-surfing software on the iPhone, iPad and Macintosh computers. Apple's browser is built to prevent websites from adding tracking files to users' phones until a user specifically visits the site -- but Google appears to have found a way to place these so-called tracking "cookies" on devices even when users have not visited Google sites.

The findings were first reporterd by the Wall Street Journal.

The researcher, graduate student Jonathan Mayer, said in his report that other privacy researchers have called the back and forth between browser makers and advertisers a "cat and mouse game" or an "arms race."

"This research result regrettably affirms that view as reality -- for, quite possibly, millions of users," Mayer wrote.

Google settled with the FTC after the agency charged the company with using "deceptive tactics and violat[ing] its own privacy promises" when it launched its Google Buzz social feature in 2010.  An early version of Buzz made users' private contact lists public, a misstep by Google that caused an immediate privacy uproar and led to the FTC investigation.

Google declined to comment on whether the issue might mean a violation of its settlement with the FTC.  But a company spokeswoman noted that the placing of outside advertising cookies on the browsers of iPhone users was not intentional.

"We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers," she wrote.  "It’s important to stress that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

This has been a bumpy week for the tech industry's best-known companies, with Apple facing federal privacy concerns over the way social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Path collect user address data from iPhones.

Corrected, 1:06 p.m.: An earlier version of this post stated that Google's settlement with the FTC came in June; in fact, the settlement was reached last March and finalized in October.

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