Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) agreed to pay a record $22.5 million to settle allegations by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that it breached Apple Inc.’s (Nasdaq: AAPL) Safari Internet browser.
The fine, the largest ever the FTC has levied against a company, represents the first by the agency for a violation of Internet privacy as the agency steps up enforcement of consumers’ online rights.
To settle a previous case, Google had signed a 20-year agreement that, among other things, included a company pledge not to mislead consumers about its privacy practices.
The FTC opened its investigation after a researcher at Stanford University revealed that Google had overridden Safari privacy settings.
The agency alleged that Mountain View, California-based Google deceived consumers and violated terms of a consent decree signed with the commission last year when it planted so-called cookies on Safari, bypassing Apple software’s privacy settings, to track users’ Internet browsing behavior.
The tracking occurs through snippets of computer coding, known as cookies, that help Internet services and advertisers target marketing pitches based on an analysis of the interests implied by a person’s Web surfing activity.
Google immediately withdrew its intrusive technology from Safari after the manipulation was reported.
But the circumvention of Apple’s built-in settings appeared to contradict a statement in Google’s online help center assuring Safari users that they didn’t need to do anything more to ensure their online activities wouldn’t be logged by Google.
The apparent contradiction between Google’s words and actions became the focal point of the FTC investigation.
Google Inc. isn’t admitting any wrongdoing in the latest settlement.
Google’s fine surpasses a nearly $19 million penalty that the FTC slapped on a telemarketer accused of duping people into believing they were donating to charities.
“The record setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “No matter how big or small, all companies must abide by FTC orders against them and keep their privacy promises to consumers, or they will end up paying many times what it would have cost to comply in the first place.”
Google has drawn regulatory scrutiny and pressure from consumer advocates for the way it handles personal information. The operator of the world’s largest search engine signed a consent decree with the FTC last year to settle allegations that it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy policies in introducing the Buzz social-networking service in 2010.
(Bloomberg and The AP contributed to this report.)