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Va. settles with Google over unauthorized Web tracking

11/19/2013, 9:17 a.m.

Virginia has reached a settlement with Google Inc. after the company allowed advertisers to track Web surfing habits of users of Apple's Safari Web browser during 2011 and 2012 without authorization. Despite having represented to Safari users that their default privacy settings would block third-party tracking programs called cookies, Google took active steps to circumvent those settings to allow cookies to track users so Google could sell more targeted advertising opportunities to advertisers.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli joined 36 other states and the District of Columbia in the $17 million settlement to ensure that the practice does not happen again.

"Privacy is important, and so is telling your customers the truth about how you're protecting their privacy online," said Cuccinelli. "Businesses will be held accountable for the representations they make to Virginia consumers about how they're tracking their personal Web surfing activities."

Google operates the most popular search engine on the Internet. While use of the search engine is free, the company generates revenue primarily through advertising. Through its DoubleClick advertising platform, Google sets third-party cookies - small files set in consumers' Web browsers - that enable it to gather information about those consumers, including their Web surfing habits. Such information can be used to serve up Web ads that are more targeted to users' interests.

Apple's Safari Web browser is set by default to block third-party cookies. On a Web page describing Google's Advertising Cookie Opt-Out, Google represented to consumers that "Safari is set by default to block all third-party cookies. If you have not changed those settings, this option effectively accomplishes the same thing as setting the opt-out cookie." However, from June 1, 2011, until February 15, 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent those default privacy settings without consumers' knowledge or consent. Google disabled this coding method in February 2012 after the practice was widely reported on the Internet and in media.

The multistate investigation alleged that Google misled users and violated state consumer protection laws by failing to inform Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings and by failing to obtain their consent to do so.

To resolve these allegations, Google has agreed to terms to prevent this from happening again and has also agreed to pay the states $17 million. Virginia's share of the settlement is $392,152.60. Under the terms, Google has agreed to injunctive relief that requires it to do the following:

  • No longer deploy the type of code used to override a browser's cookie-blocking settings without the consumer's consent, unless it is necessary to do so to detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security, or technical issues.

  • Not misrepresent or omit material information about how consumers can use any particular Google product, service, or tool to directly manage how Google serves advertisements to their browsers.

  • Improve the information it provides to consumers regarding cookies, their purposes, and how they can be managed using Google's products, services, or tools.

  • Maintain systems designed to ensure the expiration of the third-party cookies that were set on Safari Web browsers while Safari's default settings had been circumvented.

The settlement, which is in the form of an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, has been filed with the Circuit Court for the city of Richmond for approval and is available here.

Senior assistant attorneys general Gene Fishel and Rich Schweiker handled the settlement for the commonwealth.

Other states participating in the settlement are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.