Google to settle FTC charges over Safari, reports say

Google is reportedly preparing to settle with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that it bypassed privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser.

The company could pay $22.5 million to settle the charges, the Wall Street Journal reported. That would be the largest fine every levied by the regulatory agency — and is about the same as what Google made last year in five hours, the report said. Unnamed “officials briefed on the settlement terms” say a deal is close, the Journal reported, but may still be altered by commissioners before it is released.

Google had previously settled with the FTC over complaints about its Google Buzz social networking application, agreeing in March 2011 to adopt a comprehensive privacy program and submit to an independent privacy audit every two years.

The company caught the attention of the FTC again in March 2012, when the Journal reported that Google said it was linking Safari’s browsers to its servers in order to see if its account holders were signed into their accounts. The move, which bypassed Safari privacy settings, had the unintended consequence of setting additional cookies on users’ computers.

The FTC was looking into whether Google had misrepresented itself when it told its users it would abide by Apple’s privacy settings in Safari, and whether its actions violated its Google Buzz consent decree, the report said.

The FTC declined to comment on a possible deal with Google.

In a statement, Google declined to comment further on the reports of a settlement.

“We cannot comment on any specifics,” the company said. “However we do set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users. 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.”

Google is also believed to be under investigation by the French data protection authority CNIL over the Safari matter.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.

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