In 2011, in the wake of a privacy flap over its Buzz platform, Google signed a consent decree with the FTC, which barred the Mountain View company from misrepresenting "the extent to which consumers can exercise control over the collection of their information." This week, Google agreed to pay $22.5 million for violating that settlement. It's the biggest such fine ever paid, the FTC said in a statement.
At issue is a series of cookies that Google planted on Safari last year. According to the FTC, Google used the cookies to track site visits within the DoubleClick advertising network. Crucially, Google is not being fined for implementing the code, but for misleading users who believed their clicks could not be logged by Google.
"The record setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order," Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC, said in a statement. "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."
As David Kravets of Wired notes today, $22.5 million isn't exactly crippling to a company that posted $12.21 billion of revenue in the second quarter of this year alone. But the damage to Google's reputation is something else entirely. Remember, Google was founded on the motto "don't be evil" – not the motto "track the interests of Web users, in other to sell more targeted advertisements."
Google, for its part, is not exactly admitting any wrongdoing.
"We set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users," a Google spokesman wrote in a statement to Businessweek. "The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page published more than two years before our consent decree, and a year before Apple changed its cookie-handling policy. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers."