Published February 18, 2012
WASHINGTON – Three congressmen on Friday called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google Inc., after The Wall Street Journal reported that the Internet giant was bypassing privacy settings of people who used Apple Inc.'s Web browser on phones and computers.
The lawmakers—Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), Joe Barton (R., Texas) and Cliff Stearns (R., Fla.)—want to know if Google's behavior "constitutes a violation" of a privacy settlement Google and the Federal Trade Commission signed last year. Breaches of the settlement could bring fines of as much as $16,000 per violation per day.
"The FTC is aware of the situation," an agency spokeswoman said. At least two consumer groups also asked the FTC to investigate Google's behavior, which allowed the company to track Web-browsing habits of people using Safari browser software even if they intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.
At the heart of the complaints is the fact that, until recently, a page on Google's site told Safari users they could rely on the browser's settings to prevent tracking by Google. Among other things, the FTC settlement barred the company from misrepresenting its privacy practices to users.
"Google falsely told Safari users that they could control the collection of data…when in fact Google was circumventing the preference," wrote John Simpson, the privacy-project director with the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. Another advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, also made similar charges.
Google said it has stopped its practices and deleted the associated tracking files, after being contacted by the Journal. "We are taking immediate steps to address their concerns," a Google spokesman said of the congressmen's letter.
"We are happy to answer any questions regulators and others may have," the Google spokesman said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he planned to look into Google's behavior and whether it worked "to circumvent consumer choice."
Google's privacy practices have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, as it and other technology companies have expanded social-networking and information-sharing services. The companies offer many of those products to people for free and receive income from online advertisements that are customized and targeted based on users' information.
The FTC's settlement with Google came after an investigation into the company's now-defunct Buzz social network. The FTC alleged that Google used "deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers" when it launched Buzz. Google had initially made some Buzz users' contacts automatically visible to others.
Google's latest practices also involve social networking. The company says the technology that resulted in the tracking was intended to help it place social-networking buttons on ads. People could use these buttons to indicate they liked the ad and share that with friends on the Google+ network.
To enable that feature, Google used computer code that bypassed Safari's privacy settings. Safari is the only browser that has a default setting blocking advertisers and other tracking companies from placing small files called "cookies" on users' computers. After Google bypassed the settings, the company's massive advertising network was able to track many users as they browse the Web.
"Google's practices could have a wide, sweeping impact because Safari is a major Web browser used by millions of Americans," the lawmakers said in their letter to the FTC. Safari is the standard browser on Apple's iPhone and iPad devices, as well as on Mac computers.