Privacy advocates protest the FTC's $22.5M fine of Google

November 16, 2012 7:19:58 PM PST
A consumer group has lost its fight to make Google face a stiffer penalty for sidestepping privacy settings in Apple's web browser. The ruling comes amid growing concern that web companies know too much about what we do online.

On the nineteenth floor of San Francisco's Federal Building, Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog went head to head with Google, and lost, "These guys are buying their way out of a jam with what's just pocket change," Consumer Watchdog spokesperson John Simpson said. "That's unacceptable."

The group was trying to convince a judge to raise the $22.5 million fine Google's paying, as part of a settlement in a privacy case.

The Federal Trade Commission says Google sidestepped a setting in Apple's Safari web browser which is designed to prevent third parties -- in other words, advertisers -- from placing cookies on your computer that track you as you surf the internet. Google has said it did so by accident; and as part of the settlement, will not admit any wrongdoing.

"We have fundamental problems with the notion that you can pay your money and deny you do anything wrong," Simpson said.

In spite of the judge's ruling, privacy advocates say they hope the case calls attention to the practice of tracking users across the web -- a practice that recent studies show has become more common, even in the last few months.

"When you're using the internet, you've got a shadow of corporations following you around and taking note of everywhere you go," said Rainey Reitman with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The EFF has long championed the "do not track" button found in some web browsers. But that setting is only a request, and a study by UC Berkeley found most advertisers track you anyway.

A privacy firm that sponsored the UC study did their own research and found that Google is the single biggest tracker. Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow explains why, "If you watch what people do and how they behave, you learn what motivates them, and that's really the key to understanding what people will be most likely to want to buy." Yarrow worries advertisers could use the data to show different people different prices.

When asked how to avoid that, Reitman answered, "They actually probably need to block advertisements if they want to protect their privacy online."


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