The FTC Homes in (Again) on Google’s Privacy Practices


By now, most people who spend a significant amount of time connected to the Internet have become resigned to the fact that much of what they do online is not private. They know that online services, social networks, and advertising firms have deployed software applications for PCs and mobile devices that can track user behavior on the Web and, in some instances, secretly download personal information.

That’s the reality. But here’s another reality: these practices are attracting a lot of attention. Media attention. Attention from consumers. And attention from lawmakers such as Sen. Charles Schumer, who recently implored the Federal Trade Commission’s chairman, Jon Liebowitz, to investigate “a disturbing and potentially unfair practice in the smartphone application market.”

And now, attention is indeed coming from the FTC, which on Thursday announced that it is investigating Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) for, as The Wall Street Journal notes, bypassing the settings of users of Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Safari browser.

Google disabled the bypass features last month after a WSJ investigation showed that they essentially served as a workaround to “do not track” settings designed to block tracking. But because use of any type of privacy-bypass strategy would seem to violate an agreement the FTC struck with Google last year, in which the company promised to not misrepresent its privacy practices to consumers, the investigation could become costly for Google, which could face a fine of $16,000 per violation. Millions of Google users could potentially have been affected by a single privacy-policy misrepresentation.

Google has acknowledged that it began circumventing Safari’s privacy settings last year in order to embed a social-networking feature in some ads, but says that the tracking of Safari users was inadvertent.

Google has pledged to cooperate with the FTC investigation. The company also is facing similar inquiries from the French Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés.

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