Google pays $22.5 million for stealth cookies

A court has confirmed Google must pay a $22.5 million penalty — and Google will consider that a relief. That’s because a consumer group had argued the punishment was insufficient, an argument a federal judge has now rejected.

The penalty is a settlement of charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission after Google intentionally bypassed the way Apple’s Safari browser blocks tracking cookies.

The default setting for Safari is that it will only store a cookie from a site you actually visit, not one from a third party such as an advertiser. The only exception is for third-party content on a site that includes a form, for example when you see an ad that asks you to type in your e-mail address to sign up to a newsletter or claim an offer.

Google, along with several smaller advertising networks, deliberately used bogus coding that didn’t display anything on screen but did fool Safari into thinking there was a form, thus allowing the cookies to be created.

It wasn’t just the sneaky coding that got Google into hot water with the FTC. The big problem was that at the time Google’s website reassured Safari users that if they had the default browser settings, they wouldn’t be tracked — a claim that wasn’t true.

Even that in itself wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that back when Google made a privacy pig’s ear of the launch of its short-lived Buzz series, it made a settlement with the FTC that included a legally binding promise not to mislead the public about privacy policies. Congressmen of both parties were among those pointing out this is exactly what Google went on to do. The FTC came up with the $22.5 million figure to make it clear that when you reach a settlement, you have to stick to it or pay a heavy price.

An independent group, Consumer Watchdog, had filed a formal objection to the settlement. It said it didn’t go far enough because it allowed Google to keep the data it collected while breaching the rules, and it didn’t require Google to make a formal admission of guilt.

A Justice Department official said that any data Google still had from the rule-breaking activities would not be particularly useful or significant at this point. On the latter point, companies rarely admit guilt as part of a settlement. If they did it would open them up to a court case and if they were willing to take their chances in court over an issue, they’d probably not have gone for a settlement anyway.

The judge rejected the objections, ruling that “the proposed order is both procedurally and substantively fair, adequate and reasonable.”