Google Misleads Safari Users; Fined $22.5 Million

Dennis Faas's picture

Google has agreed to pay a $22.5 million penalty for misleading users of the Safari browser about its privacy policies. It's the largest penalty ever imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for this type of offense.

The case involves cookies, the small text files which a website places on a user's computer to identify and help track them. In many cases, cookies help advertisers deliver particularly relevant advertisements (Amazon's "Recommended for You" feature is one example).

Google Tricks Safari With Bogus Code

Since many web users don't like being followed, Apple decided to have its Safari Internet browser automatically block cookies.

However, Google took advantage of a loophole in Safari that allows temporary cookies within forms, such as those a user fills in to request further information from a site.

In some advertisements it placed on websites, Google inserted code that tricked the Safari browser into allowing Google to place a cookie on the user's computer. Although morally dubious, this practice didn't break any rules.

The violation occurred because Google's privacy statement on its own website specifically told Safari users they would not receive any Google tracking cookies on their machine so long as they left the browser's default settings in place.

As we now know, this was untrue.

Misleading the Public Broke Google's Own Promise

Google's false privacy statement violated a previous agreement with the Federal Trade Commission.

After a privacy scandal surrounding the launch of its initial attempt at a social network, called Buzz, Google signed a legally-binding promise not to mislead the public on privacy issues through the year 2031.

The FTC rules allow it to punish violation of such an agreement with a large fine for each individual violation. Every time a Safari user visited a web page that placed a Google tracking cookie, that counted as a separate violation.

As a result, there was effectively no limit to the size of the total fine the FTC could have imposed on Google.

According to the FTC, the $22.5 million fine is intended to send a message that even the biggest firms must play by the rules. The agency noted the fine was "many times what it would have cost to comply in the first place." (Source:

It's a large amount of money, but the fine is small by Google's standards. Based on the search giant's profits of $9.37 billion last year, the $22.5 million fine is less than what it earns in a single day. (Source:

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