Google Announces $17 million Settlement Over Use of Unauthorized Tracking “Cookies”

December 5, 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013, by Christina Wheaton
On Monday, November 18, 2013, Google announced a $17 million dollar settlement to be paid out to thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia. The settlement follows a record breaking $22.5 million dollar fine issued by the Federal Trade Commission against Google in August of 2012 regarding the same conduct.
In 2012, it was discovered that Google and several other advertising companies had been using a Double Click advertising system to track users without their knowledge. Cookies are files that allow identification of a specific user, and can track their actions as they navigate through various websites. Through use of cookies and the Double Click advertising network Google tracked a users online activity and tailored advertisements to that specific user. The default privacy settings on Apple’s browser, Safari, were intended to prevent use of third party cookies. However, Google exploited a loophole in Safari’s default privacy settings, and used cookies to track Safari users without their knowledge. Previously, the company had represented that users would not be tracked, as long as they did not alter the default settings in Safari. After it was discovered that Google had been tracking Safari users using cookies, the company disabled the coding, and changed its disclosures.

“[M]isrepresenting that tracking will not occur, when that is not the case, is unacceptable.”

Attorney generals from the thirty-seven states alleged that between June 2011 and February 2012, Google’s actions violated state consumer protection and computer piracy laws. On Monday, the case was settled for $17 million. In a statement Monday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asserted that “[c]onsumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the Web with them.” Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen agreed, emphasizing that “misrepresenting that tracking will not occur, when that is not the case, is unacceptable.”
Google, on the other hand, maintains that the tracking was a mere side effect of advertising practices, and denies any wrongdoing. It affirmed this position in a statement on Monday saying, “[w]e 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.” The company emphasized that no personal information was collected from Safari users through the use of cookies. It continued, “[w]e’re pleased to have worked with the state attorneys general to reach this agreement.”
According to a release issued by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, as part of the settlement Google has agreed not to circumvent browser default settings without consumer consent. The settlement also includes a requirement that the company maintain a page devoted to cookies, and providing consumers with information regarding cookies, for the next five years. Google is also required to refrain from making any statements that misrepresent its online tracking methods, and honor the default settings in Web browsers.
The $17 million settlement will be divided between: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.