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Google and Microsoft square off over online privacy concerns

Last week, users of Apple's Safari browser accused Google of violating their privacy to place "tracking cookies." Now Microsoft says Google is circumventing privacy features in the Internet Explorer browser, too.

By / February 21, 2012

Attendees at the National Retail Federation talk about Google Wallet at a New York conference. Microsoft claims Google is purposely circumventing its privacy measures in order to track users online.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File

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Google spent much of last week dodging criticism from Apple users about its online privacy practices. But when Microsoft got involved this week, that's when things got really interesting.

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Users of Apple's Safari browser recently claimed that Google was violating their privacy by circumventing a mechanism the browser uses to disable tracking. Here's what's (apparently) going on under the hood: by default, Safari disables third-party cookies, nuggets of code that companies can use to identify users returning to a site they've visited before, or to track what other sites they visit. Safari can accept cookies if a user explicitly gives permission, but Google's ad platform reportedly used a workaround to mimic approval of its cookies.

Now, Microsoft claims that Google is taking a similar approach to their Internet Explorer browser. Internet Explorer uses a different method than Safari to disable tracking cookies: its P3P technology allows it to gauge a site's privacy policy and automatically block cookies if that policy isn't up to snuff. In a blog post on Monday, Microsoft corporate vice president Dean Hachamovitch accused Google of intentionally bypassing P3P to enable tracking cookies.

Google responded by dismissing P3P as out of date and "widely non-operational," pointing to a 2010 Carnegie Mellon study identifying more than 11,000 websites -- including some of Microsoft's own -- that bypass it. The study showed that lots of websites ignore P3P accidentally, while others, including Google and Facebook, do it to avoid Microsoft's scrutiny of their privacy practices. Google senior vice president Rachel Whetstone wrote that it is "impractical to comply with Microsoft's request while providing modern Web functionality." No web browser aside from Internet Explorer supports P3P.

The same day Google and Microsoft began squaring off, Matthew Soble, an Apple customer upset about Google's behavior on Safari, sued the search-engine giant in the US District Court for Delaware. Bloomberg reports that Soble's attorneys want a class-action suit asserting that Google knowingly circumvented Safari's privacy measures in order to track users -- violating federal laws in the process. For its part, Google says that its code is being misrepresented, and that it's only using regular Safari functionality to provide services to signed-in Google users. In the meantime, though, it has disabled the behavior.

If you're concerned about how these showdowns affect your own online privacy, you're not alone. More often than not, tools designed to defend users from being tracked have to be circumvented for services such as Gmail and Facebook's "Like" button to work properly. Browsers introduce new privacy features, and companies introduce new workarounds.

Like it or not, the privacy wars are probably going to continue as long as data on users' online behavior remains a valuable commodity to advertisers.

Readers, how do you feel about all this? Should Google and other advertising companies do more to respect users' privacy, or are consumers fighting a losing battle here? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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