FAQ: What privacy settings was Google flouting and why does it matter?

February 17, 2012

A report in Friday’s Wall Street Journal said that Web-search giant Google has been sidestepping privacy settings in Apple’s Safari Web browser and, in so doing, has been tracking users’ behavior.

Here’s a look at what Google was doing and why it matters.

What’s the controversy about? Google was using code that allowed it to track the behavior of users of Apple’s Safari browser. The code was appended to ads and was part of a push to expand the visibility of the “+1 button,” a feature of its Google Plus social network that allows users to indicate when they like a piece of content on the Web. The Journal says in its report that Google was “exploiting a loophole”and that it was tracking consumers who had indicated that they wanted to opt out of such practices.

Google, however, said in a statement,  “The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled.”

What exactly did Google do, and why were they doing it? The “+1 button” is to Google Plus as the “Like button” is to Facebook: It’s a way for users to signal that they like something. In order to boost usage of the “+1 button,” Google made a change last year that would make the feature appear on various Web ads.

The move was part of a broader plan to make the relatively new social network better able to compete with Facebook.

But they ran into a problem trying to carry out this action in Safari, because Apple’s Web browser is designed to block the tracking that would make this possible.

To get around that roadblock, the Journal says Google made use of a workaround. The story says, “While Safari does block most tracking, it makes an exception for Web sites with which a person interacts in some way — for instance, by filling out a form. So Google added coding to some of its ads that made Safari think that a person was submitting an invisible form to Google. Safari would then let Google install a cookie on the phone or computer.”

How does this affect me? Google discontinued the practice after being contacted by the Wall Street Journal, so users no longer have to worry about being tracked in this way. However, if you are a user of Apple’s Safari browser — on personal computer, tablet, or smartphone — it’s possible that Google has gathered information about you. Neither the Journal’s report nor Google’s statement specifies exactly what type of data was collected and what, if anything, it was used for. Google stressed that the cookies did not collect “personal information,” but it is unclear how they define that.

What’s next? Google’s privacy practices have been closely watched and dissected by regulators around the world. It’s possible that the Federal Trade Commission could launch an investigation into the matter. As the Journal notes in its report, the agency reached a settlement with Google in 2011 in which the company agreed it would not “misrepresent” its privacy practices. If that agreement is breached, the fine would be $16,000 per violation, per day. 

Related content:

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Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.
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