Google Inc is paying a US$22.5 million fine to settle the latest regulatory case questioning the Internet search leader’s respect for people’s privacy and the integrity of its internal controls.
The penalty announced on Thursday by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) matches the figure reported by media outlets last month. It’s the most that the FTC has ever fined a company for a civil violation.
The rebuke resolves the FTC’s allegations that Google duped millions of Web surfers who use Apple Inc’s Safari browser.
Google had assured people that it would not monitor their online activities, as long as they didn’t change the browser settings to permit the tracking.
Google broke that promise, according to the FTC, by creating a technological loophole that enabled the company’s DoubleClick advertising network to shadow unwitting Safari users. That tracking gave DoubleClick a better handle on what kinds of marketing pitches to show them.
The FTC concluded that the contradiction between Google’s stealth tracking and its privacy assurances to Safari users violated a vow that the company made in another settlement with the agency in October last year.
The latest settlement doesn’t affect a separate FTC inquiry over whether Google has been abusing its dominant position in Internet search to highlight its own services over rivals and drive up online advertising prices. The settlement also doesn’t come with any admission from Google of wrongdoing.
The company has acknowledged that DoubleClick was tracking Safari users, but insists the monitoring wasn’t by design.
All Google wanted to do, according to the company, was create a way for Safari users to press on a button to signal they recommended an ad. Google said it didn’t realize its tinkering altered Safari’s automatic privacy settings in a way that allowed for broader surveillance.
After the circumvention was publicized in February by a graduate student at Stanford University, Google stopped the tracking on Safari. The company says it never collected any personal information.
“We set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users,” Google said on Thursday.
The Safari intrusion is the latest privacy stumble at Google.
In 2010, Google set up a social networking service called Buzz that exposed people’s e-mail contacts. The company also got in trouble for collecting personal data transmitted over unprotected WiFi networks as Google cars cruised neighborhoods around the world taking pictures for the company’s online mapping service.
The FTC didn’t take action against Google for scooping up the WiFi data, although the US Federal Communications Commission fined the company US$25,000 earlier this year for impeding its investigation into the matter.
Both the FTC and the European Commission are engaged in broad antitrust investigations of Google. The company has submitted a list of concessions in an attempt to settle Europe’s probe, while the FTC’s inquiry remains open.
Although the US$22.5 million fine is a record for the FTC, it won’t leave much of a financial dent at Google. The company had US$43 billion in cash at the end of June and generates US$22.5 million in revenue roughly every four hours.